Charleston, South Carolina is renowned for its historic architecture. When David Baker Architects (DBA) partnered with local firm McMillan Pazdan Smith (MPS) to design a brand new housing project for low-income seniors, they needed to create a building that was modern but would incorporate elements of the city’s historic fabric.

Like so many architects, DBA architect Daniel Simons was inspired by the distinctive residential building type referred to as the Charleston single house. “There’s a huge porch culture in the South, of people sitting on porches and seeing their neighbors,” says Simons. “We were trying to find a way to make the porches have a communal quality to them.”

The 47,851-square-foot building was designed around a central courtyard with open-air corridors running alongside, and replicating the look of the two-story piazzas common in many single house designs.

Like the single house, the 41 units in Williams Terrace are narrow, and each has its own porch. DBA worked with Southeastern Architectural Systems to create a porch screen comprised of sliding louvers that seniors could easily operate. Mounted on an aluminum track, the floor-to-ceiling 2-inch by 2-inch stained wood slats help regulate the temperature and provide shade throughout the day.

Each porch also has an overhead fan, allowing seniors to enjoy their communal space in hot weather, and facilitate cross ventilation via windows on opposite sides of each apartment.

In a nod to the historic look of Charleston, all the bricks used for the facade of Williams Terrace were lime-washed.

But in a design that hinged on maximizing communal and open space, the designers also needed to contend with Mother Nature. Charleston is a low-lying coastal city, and Williams Terrace is located in a high-velocity flood zone. This consideration was especially salient because the property had once been home to another affordable housing complex that was destroyed in a 1989 hurricane.

“We couldn’t put anything on the ground floor,” said Simons.

So the team decided to treat the ground floor like one enormous screened porch—a space that people could use to gather but, without any apartments or permanent structures, could withstand flood waters up to 14 feet high.

The ground level leads to a sidewalk that runs along a recently renovated public park.

Williams Terrace’s more permanent community space is located on the roof, keeping residents safe and affording expansive views of the city.