The thin strands of sand that pass for habitable spits of land along the Florida coast of the Gulf of Mexico include Casey Key, near Sarasota. This particular barrier island is only 1,000 feet across in some parts, and yet is home to some of the most beautiful and expensive vacation properties in the area, including a detached guest house that Michael K. Walker & Associates built for a remodeling customer. The idea was to give the clients an 1,100-sq.-ft living space to use while the main house was being built and to keep as a guest house afterward, when the entire project was complete.
For sheer drama and beauty, this small gem of a project, designed by Jerry Sparkman, AIA, of TOTeMS Inc. of Sarasota, wowed the entire panel of Chrysalis Award judges, helping Walker and the project garner top honors in this year’s competition.
“The owner basically asked if we could build a tree house on their property,” says Sparkman. “And it looked like we could fit this arc-shaped kind of a roof into the trees, so it would reflect the character of the site, particularly a protected set of live oak trees, that comprise a natural feature of the these islands, an oak hammock. We wanted architecture that fit that site. We wanted a deep overhanging roof. We wanted views from the east and the south, but also a shield from the sunlight that would shine in each morning.
“The other idea with the roof was that instead of having a wall and a roof, we were trying to blend those into one. Because of its site within the oak hammock, we wanted it to have a softer, more organic shape.”
It is one thing to draw and plan a beautiful detached structure like this one, it is quite another to build it, particularly given the harrowing constraints posed by the site. That job fell to Michael K. Walker and team. First, Casey Key is accessed only by a narrow two-lane road characterized by a short succession of 90-degree angles. In short, the massive glue-lam beams, would need to arrive in two pieces in order for the truck to make it down the road, and then subsequently to be carried onto the site. Second, barrier islands like Casey Key with sandy soils require special piers to be poured as foundations. On this site, the clients requested that not a tree be disturbed. As a result, the large equipment used drive standard-sized piers could not be used. Third, the $100,000 custom window package built by Marvin required exacting matches between curves of the beams and several of the window frames and panes.
The beams, windows and piers
The beams were made in a factory in Alabama. Walker had asked the beams be constructed in one piece, then cut for transportation down to Florida. Instead, the supplier made the beams in two pieces. This proved to be difficult for Walker and team. When the beams were pieced together, curvature errors became clear. These were not major errors, but over a long span, even minor errors become more pronounced. Walker’s solution was to lay out a huge piece of Masonite across a flat grassy area and fit together one of the beams perfectly. From there he scribed the shape of the beam onto the Masonite so that its exact shape could be transferred to the other beams as they were pieced together.
A similar approach was taken with each of the windows that needed to follow the curvature of the beam. Using measurements from the scribed arch, new drawings were created and sent to Marvin Corp. for a custom fit. This was crucial because these windows were built within the coastal impact zone and according to Florida building codes, windows installed in this zone cannot be shimmed more than ¼ in., notes Walker.
“Every piece of this house was built to fit within an eighth of an inch tolerance,” says Walker. “I give our framing crew a lot of credit for pulling this off.”