The moss-draped live oaks had pride of place long before the master planned community of Oldfield took root in Okatie, S.C. So when architect Gerry Cowart was asked to design a family retreat in their midst, the trees were the first stakeholders he consulted.

Not a single live oak was cut down for the Outfitter's Cottage—so named for its proximity to fishing, boating, and a nearby nature center on the Okatie River. Trunks, root systems, and limb heights were painstakingly mapped, and the low-slung residence was designed to snake its way through the voids between branches. “We really wanted to engage those trees to share their energy and beauty with the architecture,” says Cowart, a principal with Cowart Coleman Group in Savannah, Ga.

In keeping with the area's low-country vernacular, the house is built on raised tabby piers (the piers actually improve upon traditional masonry by layering a 4-inch pour of oyster shell tabby over standard concrete masonry block). Pier construction not only promotes airflow and addresses the site's high water table, but it also treads lightly on the oaks' sensitive root systems.

“The roots lie very close to the ground surface. They literally breathe, so you can't compress any of the soil,” explains Bill Mischler, president of Genesis Construction, whose project subs included a local arborist. “We were careful not to store any material or park our trucks under any of the oaks. For the north quadrant of the house, we dug a good number of the footers by hand because we couldn't get a backhoe in there without disturbing the trees.”

In fact, nearly the entire house was built from the front elevation side, so as not to upset the forest. Good thing the floor plan was mostly just one room deep.

TRUE COLORS: A welcome porch framed with native cypress (opposite page) is unmistakably Southern. The exterior palette of the house was inspired by the moss, lichen, and bark colors of the live oaks.
TRUE COLORS: A welcome porch framed with native cypress (opposite page) is unmistakably Southern. The exterior palette of the house was inspired by the moss, lichen, and bark colors of the live oaks.

In the end, the low-lying architectural form dictated by the trees proved to be more than just environmentally friendly. The single-story floor plan was a good long-term investment for the clients (retiring boomers). And the episodic layout—described by Cowart as “multiple buildings connected by hyphens”—created a natural break between the main living spaces and the three guest bedrooms (each with its own bath) located in a separate wing that also holds a sitting room and kitchenette.

Like a plantation structure added on to over the years, the house seemingly bends and folds back on itself, revealing subtle character shifts around every corner. Cowart, a die-hard kayaker, likens this sense of architectural discovery to traveling down a river: “As you head downstream, every bend is a new experience. A long quiet stretch may turn into a piece of rapids that then opens up into a lakelike area. This house keeps you guessing and anticipating, but never makes you feel like you're lost or uncomfortable.”

Project: Oldfield Outfitter's Cottage, Okatie, S.C.; Size: 3,777 square feet; Builder: Genesis Construction, Bluffton, S.C.; Architect: Cowart Coleman Group, Savannah, Ga.; Landscape contractor: Snell & Associates Landscaping, Hilton Head, S.C.; Interior designer: Group 3 Interiors, Hilton Head

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Savannah, GA.