From the June/July 2013 Issue:

Rebuilding & Rethinking

    Writer: Robin Amster |

Hurricanes will change the way we design and build homes at the shore

Article Photo
enlarge | Architect Hiland Hall Turner included breakaway walls, flood vents and structural (metal) ties in this Bay Head home. Photo by Hiland Hall Turner
Superstorm Sandy had an immediate and catastrophic effect on the Jersey Shore. But the storm was just the beginning. In the wake of its devastation, the real work has begun for thousands of residents whose homes were damaged or destroyed and whose lives have been disrupted by issues they’ve never had to deal with before.

These homeowners must navigate a landscape filled with an array of complex—and confusing—issues.

Just some of the questions they’re facing: Do I repair the damage or tear down and build a new home? How will new construction regulations affect my decision? What do I need to know about zoning regulations? What about flood insurance in light of this disaster? What financial issues are involved? Who can advise me?

Design NJ asked architects Jim O’Brien and Hiland Hall Turner to provide a look at the basic techniques crucial to repairing or building new storm-resistant homes as well as their take on zoning issues and financial considerations.

O’Brien, principal of Jim O’Brien Architects LLC, and Turner, principal of Hiland Hall Turner Architects, are both members of the American Institute of Architects and both experts in designing and building shore homes. O’Brien’s firm is headquartered in Morristown with additional offices in Wall, Leonia and New York City. Turner’s firm is in Bernardsville.

Article Photo
enlarge | This Point Pleasant home, designed by architect Jim O’Brien, features hurricane-rated windows, structural (metal) ties, elevated mechanical systems and flood vents incorporated in its foundation. During Superstorm Sandy, the flood surge came up to inches below the first floor (which contains the living room, kitchen and other living spaces) and the flood vents opened and allowed the water to flow through. Photography
Some Background
About 3.8 million of New Jersey’s 8.4 million residents live in flood hazard areas. There’s some irony in that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was updating its flood insurance maps for coastal New Jersey when Sandy struck. The maps are the basis on which federal flood insurance rates are determined, though local municipalities will likely challenge them.

Regardless, Gov. Chris Christie in January signed emergency regulations to adopt FEMA’s updated Advisory Base Flood Elevation maps as the rebuilding standard for New Jersey. The stricter standards aim to bring the shore in line with forecasts predicting a more-than-one-foot rise in sea levels by 2050 along with warnings for more intense storms.

Shore homes most vulnerable to storm damage and flooding lie in what FEMA maps designate as V and A zones, O’Brien says. At most risk, the V zone homes lie in waterfront areas where three-foot breaking waves are likely. The A zone, covering most of the shore adjacent to V zones, is not as dangerous, but homes here are still vulnerable to major damage. Turner advises homeowners to check the FEMA maps and their local municipal building officials to determine their zone.

The options for homeowners who need to take action include:
• Building deep pile foundations.
• Raising the home.
• Using a variety of mechanisms aimed at mitigating storm damage.

For many owners, though, the first decision is whether to rebuild the damaged portions or tear down and build an entirely new house. “Generally it will cost more to build a new structure,” Turner says, “but that structure will be new and more stable because you can implement new building techniques.”

“If the damage is extensive, you may lean toward building new,”O’Brien says. “If you have a small budget and the damage is not that bad, you may lean toward rebuilding” damaged portions.

Either way, homeowners will need expert advice, and an architect and engineer can help.

Storm-Resistant Building Techniques

LIFTING AN EXISTING HOME Raising a structure above the Base Flood Elevation levels is the “first and primary way of defending” homes in the V and A zones, Turner says. Private companies do the lifting, and there are house lifting and moving associations that offer referrals. “Steel I-beams are inserted [through openings or holes in the foundation] below the floor framing,” according to a FEMA report. “The contractor also may have to dig holes for the lifting jacks with the number of jacks determined by the size, shape and type of house being lifted. A first set of I-beams are placed perpendicular to the floor joists, with a second set placed below and perpendicular to the first set. Both sets extend the width and length of the house to form a cradle that supports the house as it’s raised.

“Once the beams and jacks are in place, the elevation begins. At intervals during the raising process, the house and jacks are supported temporarily on cribbing while the jacks are raised. After the house is raised to the desired height, it’s again supported on cribbing while the foundation walls are extended to the right height with concrete blocks or poured concrete. The house is then lowered onto the extended foundation walls, the I-beams and cribbing are removed and the holes where the beams passed through are filled.”

Lifting a home carries implications, O’Brien notes. Municipalities designate allowable building heights and, while some have raised theirs two to three feet to facilitate lifting homes, homeowners need to check the regulations. Homeowners also must have a current elevation certificate required by house lifting and insurance companies, Turner adds. The certificates, produced by surveyors, designate the elevation of finished floors.

DEEP PILE FOUNDATIONS Pole-like piles are driven deep into the subsoil. The piles can be made of timber, helical steel or hydrojet-installed reinforced concrete, O’Brien says. Wood has been the traditional material and often works fine. The newer technology is helical steel pilings, which O’Brien likens to steel screws that are twisted into the ground.

BUILDING ON STILTS Building a new house on stilts is a practice widely used in storm-challenged areas such as Florida and the Outer Banks of North Carolina, O’Brien says. The house sits on pilings used as stilts above the ground. This design raises some aesthetic questions, O’Brien says, adding that contemporary-style homes look more appropriate than traditional in such a setting.

BREAKAWAY WALLS These walls are not part of a house’s structural support and are designed to break free when hit by high winds or floodwaters. This allows wind or water to flow under the elevated portion of the house. They can be installed at ground-floor level to enclose space used as a garage or for storage. “It’s an option if you have a limited budget and don’t want to invest money below the first floor of the home,” O’Brien says.

FLOOD VENTS Installed at intervals along the exterior of the foundation, these resemble small vents that spin in both directions, allowing floodwater to flow through the foundation under the home and out the other side. “Water has an enormous amount of force and pressure, so you want to relieve that pressure against the foundation,” Turner says.

INTERNAL WALL BRACING AND STRUCTURAL TIES Called metal ties, metal fasteners or metal clips, these create as rigid a structure as possible for withstanding wind and water pressure. “These are the things you never see,” O’Brien says. “They are pieces of hardware—metal ties bolted in place—that connect a home’s foundation to its wood framing and then the wood framing floor to floor before connecting the top of the framing to the roof.”

Other options for creating rigid structures include metal tension straps nailed into a home’s frame, Turner says. These can be criss-crossed to create a truss-like system to withstand storms. Diaphragm walls also can be effective as groundwater barriers. They are underground structural elements used as foundation walls and retention systems. “These are all things people can do without breaking the bank,” Turner says.

HURRICANE-RATED WINDOWS, DOORS, SHUTTERS These windows feature stronger glass and stiff frames composed of a combination of wood, plastic and steel, O’Brien says. They cost 20 to 30 percent more than regular windows, not including installation. Another option is roll-down metal shutters, which are cranked down manually, operated remotely or closed automatically when winds reach a certain strength. However, they are expensive and few homeowners at the shore have invested in them, O’Brien adds.

ELEVATED MECHANICAL SYSTEM This can be crucial to mitigating storm damage, O’Brien says. It involves placing a home’s systems above the flood-elevation level. A roof terrace, the attic or a shelf mounted on a side wall are good locations to place the electric panel, HVAC controls, hot water heater, generator and other systems.

COMPONENT BUILDING The component building concept, which includes modular building, is another option, Turner says. Not everyone can afford to rebuild a stick-frame custom home, and component building is a cost-effective alternative, Turner says. “Many of our custom homes range from $350 to $800 per foot,” he says. “The [component] homes can be discussed as a means of providing lower-cost solutions.” Component building also saves time—some nine months to build new traditional construction vs. about three months for a modular home, Turner says. And though modular homes used to be easy to spot, now they can be designed so no one would guess they aren’t stick-built. “There’s also the potential for some form of customization, with architects specifying the amount of rigidity they want in a modular home as well as architectural details that modular home factories can’t provide,” Turner adds.

Zoning Issues
Zoning affects certain aspects of home building, including a structure’s height, lot coverage and setback from the street. “These issues become paramount in relation to rebuilding,” Turner says.

Given current zoning regulations, choosing to tear down and rebuild new construction might result in a house half as long and wide as the original as municipalities try to control housing density through zoning, he adds.

Financial Considerations
Sandy also has triggered new financial issues for homeowners. Flood insurance is a primary concern, with premiums based on the FEMA-recommended Base Flood Elevations designated on flood insurance maps. If homeowners carry flood insurance and their property suffers damage totaling 50 percent of its market value, they are required to elevate the home to the BFE to retain flood insurance. Under the Increased Cost of Compliance coverage, however, part of the rebuilding cost is covered.

If owners choose not to raise their homes, state officials say they could end up paying dramatically higher flood insurance premiums of some $31,000 a year, more than four times the $7,000 annual premium for homes built according to the suggested federal standards.

Besides the here and now, homeowners in flood zones face issues that could affect their future. What is the market value of a home that doesn’t comply with its BFE? Will there be buyers for the home? Will higher flood insurance premiums for non-compliant homes affect its sale price?

Article Photo
enlarge | This rendering by architect Jim O’Brien is one example of how shore homes could look in the future. The ground level features an open garage and closed space that could be used for storage of items that could be moved easily or that wouldn’t be a major loss if damaged in a flood.
The Aesthetics: A New Look for the Jersey Shore?
Even the look of the shore might change in the wake of Sandy. While pitched-roof beach-cottage architecture is prevalent in many Jersey shore communities, many more homes may be designed with parking or storage on the ground floor, living areas on the second and third floors, and flat, walkable terraces or “green roof” surfaces above.

Robin Amster is a Madison-based writer and editor.


Contact Information
Hiland Hall Turner has established a new company in response to Sandy. H2Oceans LLC, based in Bernardsville, is aimed at helping people deal with damaged homes. “There’s been an enormous amount of confusion, and people have been frozen by that,” Turner says of the storm’s aftermath. “They are almost afraid of taking that initial step.” H2Oceans offers a “rapid response” team of architects, engineers, surveyors, landscape architects and interior designers working under one contract to develop solutions and produce stronger structures, Turner says. 908-696-0073.

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