Every morning while on the island of Eleuthera, Melissa Brillhart and her five-year-old daughter, Simms, step out from their cottage and down to their deck to do yoga. "Often, we’re joined by five or six local women," says Melissa. Despite the island’s remoteness, Melissa and her husband, Jacob, have found Eleuthera to have a profound sense of community. "I know more people to wave at in the Bahamas than I do in Miami," says Jacob.
The cottage, and the many other homes the couple’s firm, Brillhart Architecture, designed in the Bahamas and in Miami, have been described as "tropical modern." "This is accurate," says Jacob, the firm’s founder, "in that our work is modern—and these projects are set in the tropics."
But Brillhart Architecture does not strive to fit into any particular aesthetic. "Our focus is on making spaces feel natural, and good, and connected to their surroundings," says Melissa, a principal at the firm. Jacob, who approaches architecture from the perspective of an artist (he is a painter) and a teacher (he is an Associate Professor at the University of Miami School of Architecture), has developed a systematic method—or "recipe"—for their projects.
For the Brillhut, the couple started with a thorough exploration of local architecture, which Jacob says was "built to survive the tropics long before air conditioning was available." Like the loyalist homes on Harbor Island, the dwelling is raised off the ground on low stilts and has a stick frame and a steep clapboard roof. From Caribbean/Creole architecture, the Brillhut borrows the concept of a loggia for the open living area downstairs, and a "cabinet room" for the enclosed sleeping space upstairs.
Next, the Brillharts considered the weather, as well as natural light, color, and even sound. They originally intended to surround the lower level with glass, but due to cost constraints they relied on screens instead for the first year. "We loved feeling that intimate with nature," says Melissa, "but it was a little too windy." Eventually, they installed panels of sliding glass on the windier eastern side, while the opposite side remains simply screened in.
In addition to the glass, the house has big flaps formed from structurally insulated panels that protect it during the stormy season. "We open them when we get there, and just leave them open—even at night—until we leave," says Jacob. While open, the flaps create shade, shield the home from rain, and extend the living area out into the landscape.
Circular skylights define the simple upstairs space. "We wanted to make varied experiences in the house," says Melissa. "You don’t always need gigantic views of everything all the time—the round skylights above the beds direct focus on the nighttime stars, like a telescope. The row of windows allow us to see the sunrise over the water while we’re still lying in bed."
In terms of structure, the Brillhart recipe calls for natural materials—including cedar roof shingles, and red cedar cladding on the side flaps. The wood beams and columns are also red cedar.
Jacob, a builder as well as an artist and architect, built all of the furniture in the home except for the Hans Wegner chairs at the dining table. "Built-ins made sense for the space, and for the other pieces, we couldn’t find the right furnishings," he says. "It was easiest to make them ourselves." Jacob based several of the pieces on midcentury Jean Prouvé designs.
The Brillharts continue to add to their growing compound. They recently completed a small addition just down the boardwalk from the main house that includes a half bath, an outdoor shower, and a tiny kitchen—perfect for entertaining on their new cocktail deck. "We use the outbuilding all the time," says Jacob, "we should have built it first." Next, the couple plan to build a pickleball court and an outdoor movie theater on the ruins of a 1960s resort that sits on their property.
They built the boardwalk to weave over and through existing plants. "Anything four feet tall remained, and we worked the walkway around it," says Melissa, who finds island gardening to be therapeutic and totally unique. "All the plants we use are native and completely self sustaining," she says. To create an organized tropical garden, they moved existing sea grape and agave plants, and selected grass samples from around the island. "We planted it like hair plugs every three feet, and it has grown into this lovely fluffy stuff," says Jacob.
The Brillharts originally decided to buy the property while building a surfer’s retreat for a friend from Miami. That home's exuberant reception led to multiple projects for Brillhart Architects on Harbor island. "Brillhut is our vacation home, but we joke that it has also become a satellite office," says Jacob.
Nonetheless—and despite the fact that they get great cell reception on the island—when they tell colleagues and clients they’re going to the Bahamas for three weeks, people assume they’re unreachable. "It sounds a little cheesy," says Jacob, "but Eleuthera means ‘freedom’—and that’s just how this place feels."
"Amazingly, it’s only a 55-minute plane ride from Miami," Melissa adds. "But it feels like we fell off the end of the earth."
More projects by Brillhart Architecture:
Builder/General Contractor: Jacob Brillhart, Brillhart Architecture
Landscape Design: Melissa and Jacob Brillhart, Brillhart Architecture
Interior Design: Melissa and Jacob Brillhart, Brillhart Architecture
Cabinetry: Melissa and Jacob Brillhart, Brillhart Architecture
Special thanks to local Bahamians: Gordon and Red Cash, Fritznel Exalien, Tomas Amas, and Corniel Brandon Johnson
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