May 24, 2016

Design Dossier: Gary Justiss

Alabama architect Gary Justiss waxes poetic about design

  • Architect Gary Justiss

Since opening his own firm in 1993, architect Gary Justiss has designed more than one hundred custom homes, as well as numerous commercial, recreational, and civic buildings. New urbanist communities along Florida’s famous sugar sands panhandle, such as Seaside, Alys Beach, Rosemary Beach, and WaterColor, are the main beneficiaries of Gary’s work—much of it inspired by Anglo-Caribbean architecture and all of it distilled down to its most simplistic, yet highly functional, form. He has participated as an architectural consultant for numerous charrettes for Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, Dover Kohl & Partners, The Architectural Charrette Team, The New Urban Guild, and the CNU; and is a founding member of The New Urban Guild.

With much of his work situated along the Gulf Coast, Gary is a pro at designing and building for a harsh environment. “You try and build things sturdy and low maintenance on the coast,” he says. “That’s one of the brilliant things about Alys. It’s as close to building a hurricane bunker as you can do—stucco on block, concrete roofs, hurricane-rated windows. It’s as tough of an architecture as you can reasonably design, but it looks really elegant.” Gary says that for him, along with durability, sustainability is top of mind. “One of the things I’m realizing is wherever possible, if budgets can at all handle it, it is important to use long-term, durable materials and give the building a chance to last.”

Gary Justiss

One of the many things Gary loves about designing for the Gulf coast’s new urbanist communities is the adoption of zero lot lines and interior courtyards, rather than having a house built inside a narrow perimeter of landscaping. “It’s very counterintuitive and you think it would be a loss of privacy, but it’s the exact opposite,” he says. “With a more traditional setback on each side of a house, it doesn’t give you any meaningful space you can actually use. You tend to keep the blinds closed because you can see the guy brushing his teeth ten feet away.” Gary says the idea of building on the full footprint of the lot, right up against your neighbor, “is a smart thing. You create truly private outdoor space and there’s 16 inches of concrete block between you and your neighbor—you never know he’s there!” And the revitalized trend, started along Highway 30-A, the Panhandle’s new urbanist mecca, is spreading. “It took a while for the rest of us to figure it out,” he says. “But the whole idea of courtyard living, with fountains and arbors and summer kitchens, is moving north.”

After graduating from the Auburn University School of Architecture in 1978 and working for fourteen years for Birmingham, Alabama, architectural firms, Gary established Gary Justiss Architect.

We are thrilled Gary took the time to chat with us about all things architecture, design, and divine from his home in Chelsea, Alabama, where he works and lives with his wife, three children, three dogs, and about 20 chickens!

*Builder credits for this Design Dossier feature: Comer House, Alys Beach Construction; Fiasco House, Artisan Construction; Frazer House, Grand Floridian Builders.

Gary Justiss, Architect

  • Comer House

    The Comer house, located in the new urbanist community of Alys Beach on Florida's panhandle, fronts pedestrian streets on both its front and right side, its unique site inspiring the turret living room. Extensive outdoor living and dinning areas blur the line between interior and exterior.

    Interior Design: Design Services of Florida, Dale Trice. Photography: Jack Gardner Photography.
    • Comer exterior

    • Comer beach house

    • Comer kitchen

    • Bathroom by Gary Justiss

    • Beachhouse bedroom

  • Fiacco House

    The Fiacco house is a compuond of structures situated around a central courtyard on Lake Marilyn in Alys Beach, Florida. This separate buildings allow an extended family to vacation together with private quarters. The design draws inspiration from the Bermudan architecture of Alys Beach combined with elements of South Beach Modern.

    Interior Design: Urban Grace Interiors, Erika Mcpherson Powell. Photography: Jean Allsopp.
    • Fiacco kitchen

    • Fiacco beach house

    • Fiacco bedroom

    • Fiacco pool

    • Fiacco courtyard

    • Fiacco exterior

  • Frazer House

    Located on the waterfront in the Florida Panhandle's new urbanist town of Rosemary Beach, the Frazer house's design is a hybrid of the Anglo-Caribbean architecture of Rosemary and images of Balinese architecture loved by the client resulting in a simple, classic design that bridges the traditional and contemporary.

    Interior Design: Sandy Frazer. Photography: Colleen Duffley.
    • Frazer Home

    • Frazer bedroom

    • Frazer stairwell

    • Swinging bed on porch

Q&A Starts

Interview by Lacey Howard, Global Trends Senior Content Editor

GT: Who in the field of architecture (or any field for that matter) inspires you and why?

GJ: Well, this is going to sound like a [beauty] pageant answer, but…Jesus. Maybe I’m just an old hippie, but everything distills down to love or a lack of it. The Gospel of Christ is about love. I hope my work is an act of adding something beautiful to the world, something my clients will love.

GT: What is the first room or building you remember falling in love with?

GJ: Good segue, huh? The first building I recall being impacted by (love may be too strong as I was only 7) was Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. My Father was in the military, stationed in Japan in the early 60’s, and we spent our first night in the Imperial. I wish I could recall more. I just remember what a cool, cave-like space it was…very blurry memories, but it has stayed with me.

Editor’s note: Three main buildings have stood on the Imperial Hotel site, each of which embodied the finest western design of its era. The Wright-designed main building stood from 1922 until 1967. The current main building replaced Wright’s design in 1970.

GT: Did this space or building influence your career choice?

GJ: I’m sure it did in some way, maybe just subliminally. We traveled a lot through Japan in those three years and I think Asian architecture has had a huge influence on me. Not so much the specifics as the use of natural materials in rational, simple, and orderly ways. I also think the shoji gave me an affection for translucence. Western architecture is all about the opaque and the transparent. Shoji is about the spaces between.

GT: When was it you knew you were destined to be an architect?

GJ: I kind of wander through life intuitively…I’m not a big planner. I didn’t KNOW I wanted to be an architect until my 5th year in architecture school! I almost switched to industrial (product) design in my 4th year. I was frustrated with designing large projects in school. I like detail. Which may be why my practice now is largely residential.


"The simplest design is the most beautiful. We often try too hard to be cute. We need to be more timeless." —architect Gary Justiss


GT: Do you have a signature design element that you find yourself using time and again?

GJ: I hope not! I really try to approach each project fresh. I listen to my clients, look at their sketches, their clippings…then design a home that fits them like a finely tailored suit.

GT: Tell me about your personal design philosophy.

GJ: I think I just did!

These next 10 questions originally came from a French series, "Bouillon de Culture" hosted by Bernard Pivot. They are better known as the questions that James Lipton asks every guest at the end of "Inside the Actor's Studio.” We have tweaked them just a bit to be relevant to architecture.

GT: What is your favorite architectural word?

GJ: Timeless

GT: What is your least favorite architectural word?

GJ: Zeitgeist

GT: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally about architecture?

GJ: The fact that a building can fill a functional roll while simultaneously filling an emotional need.

GT: What turns you off?

GJ: Showy modern buildings that don’t function and illiterately detailed traditional buildings—equally.

GT: What is your favorite curse word when on a project?

GJ: “Shit” has always been the only officially sanctioned curse word in the Justiss family. I have continued that tradition.

GT: What sound or noise when a client visits a project do you love?

GJ: Ooooooooh!

GT: What sound or noise when a client visits a project do you hate?

GJ: Hmmmmm….

GT: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

GJ: Music. That’s always been my main hobby. If I could have made a living at it, it would have been my first choice. I think my continued involvement with music has informed my design work—especially recording. Every time I’ve recorded, I’ve wished I had played fewer notes. This has given me the courage to leave blank space in a design. It leaves room for others to contribute—landscaping to cast shadows, art to hang, furniture to sit.

GT: What profession would you not like to do?

GJ: Politics.

GT: If Heaven exists, what style of room would you like God to escort you to when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

GJ: Wow! I think I’ll leave that up to HIM. God said it’s better than we can ask or think, so I’m pretty sure it’ll be wonderful.


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