Green Before Green Was Cool
By Madison and Mark Talley
Photos by Christy Ryan
If buildings today were designed following visionary Mississippi builder and designer Carroll Ishee’s principles, we would have more interesting communities that respected the natural environment instead of wreaking havoc on this limited resource. Ishee is said to have built over 150 buildings, most of which were houses, along the Gulf Coast. He tackled tricky terrain and conquered challenging sites others deemed unbuildable. His love for nature is visible in his work which was designed using sustainable principles and crafted with natural materials long before “green” was the norm.
Five overarching themes that can be seen in Ishee’s work include:
Driving through Ocean Springs, you will often happen upon clusters of Ishee houses that peek out of the woods or nestle down into the boggy lowlands. These enclaves are home to artists, architects, and free spirits who relate living in an Ishee-designed house to communing with nature.
Ishee sought large, unwanted swaths of land where he could carve out irregular lots and would use natural features within the landscape to enhance his designs. He favored dense foliage with no yard to maintain and a cheap asking price.
The placement of the buildings in relation to the sun was a driving design force. Most of the buildings have long north and south walls and short east and west walls. Regionally, this is the proper solar orientation due to the harsh southern sun. Deep overhangs and minimal glass on the south combined with ample glass on the north allows ambient daylight to flood the houses. When the proper orientation wasn’t suitable in conjunction with the site, the glass walls in the buildings faced protective foliage.
Walk up to any Ishee house and one of the first things that sticks out will be the handle on the front door. Often constructed of a unique limb found in the surrounding woods, the entryway sets the tone for the rest of the structure and brings the idea of reuse to the forefront. The interiors of the homes are full of quirky detailing with tree trunks replacing columns, large slabs of wood used as steps, and doors salvaged from old schools.
He would frequently seek out buildings that were on the verge of demolition and remove windows, doors, and other salvageable items. He stored his haul in a large warehouse by the railroad tracks in Ocean Springs.
LOW MAINTENANCE MATERIALS
The majority of surviving Ishee houses have had little to no exterior alterations largely due to the use of resilient materials. The exterior wall panels were often unpainted asbestos with raw cedar battens. The soffits and some of the ceilings were cedar shake which carried the theme from the outside in. The windows–large sheets of plate glass–were typically site built in order to accommodate unique shapes and sizes and cut down on cost. Interior walls were often comprised of inexpensive drywall with a textured coat of white plaster applied over the top creating a unique and long lasting finish. He used concrete as a low cost flooring option, and in his later buildings, used concrete to create thin floating walkways bridging marshy areas and small waterways.
Ishee favored few walls, opting only to enclose bathrooms and bedrooms, thus allowing natural light to play across the spaces. The large walls of glass allow dappled light to move through the houses, morphing the interiors throughout the day and reflecting the surrounding vegetation. Gathering spaces were situated around these open, lush views, while bedrooms were often kept private with high, triangular shaped windows that followed the rooflines.