A stunning construction of stucco lit by sunlight on the ocean shore. A collection of circular buildings in woodlands, connected by a long row of solar panels. A home submerged in a hillside, a rattlesnake-like garage marking its location. Walls of glass that beg to be open to catch the breeze. The Roto-Lid, a vented skylight specially designed to let in the light and warmth on cool days and shut out the sun's heat on others.
All are whimsical structures created to live and breathe with their surroundings instead of in spite of them. These dozen-plus homes and community projects are scattered across the country, with a few more around the globe. Each was handcrafted by a renegade team of designers known as Jersey Devil, who've been roving the countryside for 30 years, leaving their mark on the landscape.
Air flow is the key concept and Airstream trailers the trademark of the design team anchored by Jim Adamson, Steve Badanes and John Ringel, who met at the University of Princeton's graduate school of architecture. Working sometimes together and sometimes with a revolving cast of friends and colleagues, designers, artists and craftsmen, the Jersey Devil designers have developed fame for the structures they create and for their method of creating them: Most architects do the design work and leave the construction to others, but Jersey Devil broke convention by seeing projects through from start to finish, often living on site in their Airstreams for the duration.
``We're itinerant builders,'' says Adamson, who lives in a cottage on the grounds of a house the team built in the Redland in 1987. ``Nomadic. Our home is where the projects are. The trailers make it easy for us to pack up our tools and live on the site. We can learn a lot about the microclimate that way, what goes on, the noise. It allows us to build something that responds to the site, something that makes you comfortable without using a whole lot of energy.
``And living on site is very intense. You immerse yourself in the project and then when it's done, you get up and go to the next project. We get to know the clients really well and enjoy ourselves in the process.''
The Palmetto House in the Redland, owned by Adamson and rented to tenants, is a South Florida example of their work. Jersey Devil -- whose name came from a legend near where they built one of their first projects in New Jersey -- spent eight months building that home in South Miami-Dade.
Described as ``metal-skinned'' by Badanes, one of the creators, the house reflects the heat and resists the humidity, thanks to its shiny steel siding and roof. Vented by 70 windows and screened porches at each end, the living area of the home sits among the treetops to capture the breezes that whisk from end to end, rattling the bamboo garden outside. A workshop below is cooled by opening garage doors that serve as walls, creating a draft through the clerestory windows.
``The whole idea is cross-ventilation,'' Adamson says of the group's designs, which capitalize on the prevailing winds so that residents can live as energy-efficiently as possible. In many cases, as in the Palmetto House, that means 14 fans but no air conditioning.
The Palmetto House's single large room has an alcove as a bedroom and semi-private bath but none of the walls reach as high as the ceiling because that would block air flow and impede the breeze.
A loft above the main floor provides an office area, looking out over the treetops through the walls of windows or down through the open-grated flooring, also installed to enable air flow.
``They specialize in open-air design using salvaged materials,'' said Fort Lauderdale architect James Archer. ``They've been working all over the country since the '70s, and have become notorious in architecture circles for traveling around in Airstream trailers and doing interesting work.''
Jersey Devil ( http://www.jerseydevildesignbuild.com/ ) pioneered the practice of the same team designing and building a project. Previously, the American Institute of Architects said designers could not serve as building contractors on the same job. Thanks to Jersey Devil and others, the rule has been changed, and design/build teams have become more common.
BUILDING FOR THE JOY
Badanes says he builds for the ``sheer physical and spiritual joy of it,'' and because he believes that ``the future of creative work lies in the hands of those who can construct their own ideas.''
``Jim and I have had a pretty good life with it,'' Badanes says. ``What we do is more of a total commitment.''
Badanes, a professor at the University of Washington, plans student projects to build community centers, schools,
`The idea that you can make a building less dependent on the resources of the planet is radical, but probably constructive.'
-- Jersey Devil builder
clinics and libraries in Mexico, Africa and India. Adamson often accompanies the classes. Badanes says they'd like to pursue more community and public art projects.
Other Jersey Devil products in Florida are the Montessori Island School in Tavernier, a home and pottery studio in Islamorada and a beach pavilion at Seaside. Each has signature touches of careful, loving construction, tuned into its environment.
``We think it's nice to be able to really experience the smells and sounds of nature,'' says Badanes. ``We wanted to make a statement about how a building could respond to its site. Our small amount of work has had a huge influence on a lot of architecture students. The idea that you can make a building less dependent on the resources of the planet is radical, but probably constructive.''
Jersey Devil chooses to create using ``honest materials,'' preferably natural woods, stone, tile and fabrics that have not been treated with synthetic processes and that come from a source near the home. The builders consider the energy necessary to haul supplies across country. When possible, they'll reuse materials.
In Florida, Jersey Devil uses shiny metal exteriors, which are impervious to moisture and reflect the sunlight. Radiant heat barrier foil accomplishes a similar goal under roof rafters. Large roof overhangs and canvas awnings help shade windows and doors; an arbor planted with passion fruit vines serves the same purpose at the Islamorada house. Raising the structure off the ground helps lift it out of the surface heat and humidity and into the path of prevailing breezes. Lots of windows and ceiling fans help keep rooms comfortable, even in summer months.
``We like to use recycled energy, and to use things out of context. We've used flower pots as lamp fixtures,'' says Adamson. ``It's whimsical and it's recycling. It's stretching the mind a bit about what things are for and how they're used.''
But building under trees, reusing materials and incorporating solar power isn't just for fun. ``I think it's a builder's responsibility to do whatever we can to save energy and to have as little impact as possible on the environment,'' says Adamson. ``It's everyone's responsibility.''
Badanes says that although the design/build services of Jersey Devil might be less expensive than hiring a ``fancy'' architect or custom builder, they're not cheap.
Cost depends upon the location, the size and the length of the project, as well as the materials used and what problems the team must overcome in the design and construction.
``There's no point in me competing with a cheap builder -- why would you shoot for the lowest common denominator?'' Badanes said. ``Our clients are usually a lot like us. They're interested in energy efficiency and hand-craftsmanship. They're interested in more than they can get off the shelf. Of course it's going to cost a little more money.''
Trish Riley is a South Florida writer and a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. Her e-mail is email@example.com .