Low-lying coastal communities are facing growing pressure to adapt to rising sea levels and intense storms. It is under these circumstances that some architects and designers are rethinking how they design homes on the coast.
Here we look at four projects that show how architects have elegantly incorporated flood-zone requirements into their designs. These modern resilient homes — in which living spaces are built a full level above the ground — are more than just structures on stilts. They allow occupants to better connect with the land through new indoor-outdoor living spaces, terraced gardens and restored dune areas.
Stephen Yablon ArchitectureThe Federal Emergency Management Agency has established flood-zone maps for U.S. coastal areas. The agency requires that houses built within the most exposed areas be anchored against wind and water forces. FEMA’s mapping also recommends that the first habitable floor be elevated above sea level. For many low-lying sites, this is nearly a full floor above grade.
A common and cost-effective approach for protecting single-family homes in flood zones is called “wet floodproofing.” The floor level subject to flooding is designed to allow water to flow in during storm flooding and then drain away naturally. This house by Stephen Yablon Architecture illustrates the principle. The first floor is raised, and the open-air recreation space under the house allows water to flow through without damaging the structure.
RUHL STUDIO ArchitectsRenovated Coastal Cottage in Rockport, Massachusetts
Architect William Ruhl’s house sits on a coastal headland that juts into the ocean in Rockport, Massachusetts, and is subject to the full fury of Atlantic storms. Designed by his firm, Ruhl Studio Architects, the home features massive poured-in-place concrete piers that support and raise the house above the storm flood level, making clear the forces of wave and wind action they have to resist. The concrete is also harmonious with the exposed granite boulders.
The history of the property tells us about our progress in coming to terms with climate change. The original cottage sat low on the rocky shoreline that is now subject to flooding. To conform with new coastal flooding and storm guidelines, the architects raised the original cottage onto concrete piers and gave it a modern makeover.
RUHL STUDIO ArchitectsRather than using the space under the house for only storage, Ruhl envisioned that it could be used for outdoor living in the summer. He raised the house even higher than FEMA required to achieve an 8-foot-tall ceiling underneath the house. Using the principles of wet floodproofing, he installed a durable concrete floor for the space, set level with the boulders and exposed granite ledge that line the shoreline.
The space functions as a summertime outdoor living room, complete with porch swing and dining area. When the weather is fine, the outdoor room at grade connects the home to the ground and oceanfront. The homeowners can safely ride out storms in the copper-clad house, raised above the waves on massive piers.
RUHL STUDIO ArchitectsThe house is further anchored to its site by having its entry foyer and stairs on the lower level. The foyer is defined by concrete walls to defend against a large storm and acts to visually connect the house to the land. Here, Ruhl enjoys the lower level with one of his grandchildren.
RUHL STUDIO ArchitectsRuhl recounted that he was away on vacation when three major nor’easters blew through in February 2016. His neighbor sent him a video of 2 feet of storm surge submerging the lower “wetproofed” portion of his house. When Ruhl returned, “The ground floor under the house was absolutely covered with poppies up to 1 inch in diameter. There was a saltwater line on the house documenting the surge but not a drop inside,” he says.
Bates Masi Architects LLCStreamlined Pavilion Home in Long Island
The Northwest Harbor house by Bates Masi Architects is located on a coastal estuary in Long Island, New York. FEMA regulations required it to have the habitable spaces elevated above the surrounding grade. A common approach in the area is to build up an artificial hill or berm and place the house on top of the hill on pilings for support. This can make the house look out of place in the otherwise relatively flat landscape of the area.
Instead, the architects elevated the house on only six glue-laminated structural piers, leaving relatively unobstructed open space under the house. Glue-laminated timbers are an engineered wood product made from wooden strips factory glued together to make a structural member. The advantage of a glue-laminated structure is not only that it is stronger than a single piece of wood the same size would be, it also doesn’t require harvesting a large tree.
The grand set of stairs leading from grade to the front door invites visitors to the entry on the upper level. It visually connects the house to the ground, avoiding the appearance of a house on stilts, disconnected from the surrounding landscape. All the materials on the lower level, including the concrete stair, are flood-resistant.
Bates Masi Architects LLCThe architects kept the lower level open and pavilion-like, beautifully accommodating functional recreational requirements.
Bates Masi Architects LLCThe open area on the left side of the photo is the carport. Stairs to the house sit behind the wood screen. In the center is flexible space and boat storage. The mechanical room is lifted up from grade to avoid flooding during storms.
Bates Masi Architects LLCPlanted Steps and Preserved Landscape in the Hamptons
The Sagaponack house, also by Bates Masi, in New York is another modern approach to resilient coastal architecture. The house is lifted above grade and rests on a platform. The platform raises the house above flood level and is designed as a series of terraces planted with coastal grasses that step up to the house. The platform provides a safe area of refuge for residents above the floodwaters and outside the envelope of the house.
Bates Masi Architects LLCThe house has also maintained the existing dune ecology on the ocean side of the home, creating a buffer to help absorb the force of storm surges.
Photo by Anne Parker
Coastal Dune Restoration in Charleston Harbor
Landscape architect W. Scott Parker had to consider waterfront resiliency when designing the home and landscape of this house on Sullivan’s Island, a barrier island at the entrance to Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. The property is subject to coastal flooding from hurricanes, and FEMA has established that the first habitable floor should be raised above the ground.
Photo by Anne Parker
Instead of concrete piers, this beach house is raised above the sandy terrain on pressure-treated poles, like telephone poles. Diagonal braces tie the poles together and are used to resist lateral wave and wind loads. As Ruhl did with his house, Parker raised the home more than required to give 10 feet of headroom below.
Under the house, Parker exposed the beautiful white sand that makes up the island, allowing it to be the floor of the outdoor living space.
Photo by Anne Parker
This open space underneath the house is arranged as an artist’s plein-air studio — Anne Parker, the architect’s wife, is shown here — with showers to rinse off from the beach, a games area and kayak storage. Wood slats are used for privacy and to define the other spaces.
Wood slats are a good solution for enclosing the space, since FEMA rules require that any walls be able to break away during storm surges to lessen water pressure on the building and supporting piers.
Photo by Anne Parker
Coastal resilience also relies on the care and maintenance of coastal dune ecology that is critical to absorbing wave action during storms, which is something Parker focused on with his home. The property is separated from the ocean by a natural coastal dune with native shrubs and trees. Parker restored the dune ecology, starting with a palette of native grasses, including sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata), used by local basket weavers, and coreopsis, a native flowering plant common to the island.
Parker nurtured the plants from seeds collected by a friend on the island. Over time he has enhanced the natural dune ecology by adding native shrubs and trees, including the low-growing palmetto (Sabal sp.). He also added more native flowering plants, including blanket flower (Gaillardia sp.), which has readily adapted to the site.
The native plantings are effective in stabilizing the dune between the ocean and the house, which can help absorb a storm’s fury. Parker notes the native plants require no watering and little maintenance, saying he only needs “to do some trimming to maintain the path to the beach and thinning of the existing trees and palmettos to open views to the ocean and allow cooling breezes through.”