Life Elevated: Architects Adapt Design to FEMA Regulations - 27 East


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Life Elevated: Architects Adapt Design to FEMA Regulations

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"Kiht’han," a project in Sagaponack from Bates Masi + Architects, uses a board and batten design that, in the case of a flood, would allow water to flow through the first-floor level, as per FEMA regulations. COURTESY BATES MASI + ARCHITECTS

"Kiht’han," a project in Sagaponack from Bates Masi + Architects, uses a board and batten design that, in the case of a flood, would allow water to flow through the first-floor level, as per FEMA regulations. COURTESY BATES MASI + ARCHITECTS

"Kiht’han," a project in Sagaponack from Bates Masi + Architects, uses a board and batten design that, in the case of a flood, would allow water to flow through the first-floor level, as per FEMA regulations. COURTESY BATES MASI + ARCHITECTS

"Concealed Cottage," a project from The Up Studio, utilized and added to an existing foundation to make the home FEMA compliant. COURTESY THE UP STUDIO

"Concealed Cottage," a project from The Up Studio, utilized and added to an existing foundation to make the home FEMA compliant. COURTESY THE UP STUDIO

"Concealed Cottage," a project from The Up Studio, utilized and added to an existing foundation to make the home FEMA compliant. COURTESY THE UP STUDIO

authorMichelle Trauring on Sep 28, 2022

Line, space, texture, value, color, shape and form. These building blocks of architectural design are critical to the flow, balance and harmony of any given home — seven guiding principles for architects to consider and follow.

But along the oceans and bays of the East End, there are technically eight — and the final design element is mandatory.

Set against a backdrop of climate change, rising seas and worsening storms, new waterfront homes in Southampton and East Hampton towns hinge on compliance with Federal Emergency Management Agency regulations — stringent codes that dictate the specific elevation above grade that homes must be raised, as prescribed by flood maps.

And in communities subject to wave action and flooding, architects have no choice but to marry design with FEMA mandates, and face the aesthetic challenges that come along with it.

“It’s really changed the fabric of neighborhoods, and it’s not going to get better. It’s going to get much worse,” explained architect John Rose, owner of John David Rose Architect in Southampton. “Because, in theory, global warming has an impact on the tides and, as they come up, I suspect FEMA will make it higher and higher and higher.”

Last month, new research indicated that 3.3 percent of an ice sheet in Greenland — equivalent to 110 trillion tons of ice — will melt due to human-driven climate change, an event that couldn’t be stopped even if the world stopped emitting greenhouse gases today. According to the findings published in the journal “Nature Climate Change,” this will generate nearly a foot of global sea level rise.

While the study did not give a timeline, the authors anticipate much of the ice melt will occur before 2100. In the next 30 years alone, if sea levels along the U.S. coastlines rise between 10 and 12 inches on average — as predicted in a recent report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — major, destructive flooding is expected to take place five times as often, and moderate floods will be 10 times more frequent.

In conversations with his waterfront clients, architect Glen Cordova said the topic is front of mind.

“Architecture has to respond to the challenges of climate change and so that’s something that our clients are very in tune to,” explained the partner at BMA Architects in Bridgehampton. “We deal with very-high-net-worth individuals and very valuable pieces of property, so the money that they’re investing into these properties, it’s very important to them that there’s a long-term plan and thinking about those long-term plans. There’s no way to avoid the issue of climate change, rising sea levels, so it is something that we plan for and try to even foresee patterns in storms and FEMA guidelines.”

On the Flood Insurance Rate Map, there are 18 flood zones in the United States designated by FEMA. Flood zone X is, arguably, considered the safest designation, lying outside the 500-year flood plain. On the East End, the AE zone has a 1 percent annual chance of flooding, which is also referred to as the base flood or 100-year flood, whereas flood zone V represents the highest risk in coastal areas and requires the most rigorous guidelines — coupled with local municipal mandates, Rose explained.

“It’s a really complicated puzzle because you have FEMA telling you, ‘You have to raise your first floor,’” he said. “You have, let’s say, the Village of Southampton saying, ‘You can’t go over a certain height,’ so you’re being pushed from the top and pushed from the bottom. And then add into it pyramid law — villages and towns, they all have different pyramid laws — so now they’re pushing from the sides.

“So it’s a challenge to do a nice home, FEMA compliant, neighborhood friendly and environmentally sound — other than that, it’s easy,” he continued. “It really is a challenge. Not only do you have the normal challenges of designing a custom home for a client, but you have all these regulatory agencies pushing and pulling.”

At Stelle Lomont Rouhani Architects, many of the Bridgehampton firm’s projects involve removing older, non-FEMA-compliant homes that were precariously close to the water, and designing new houses that meet current codes and required setbacks — “which usually means quite a bit of retreat from where the original house was,” according to partner and architect Viola Rouhani.

But that wasn’t always the case, she said. Before Hurricane Sandy, clients would often try to get the existing location grandfathered in, allowing a new house to go up as close to the water as possible.

“Since Sandy, however, more and more clients are quick to offer that they’d like to be farther back,” Rouhani said. “From a design perspective, it makes more sense to put distance between the house and the water, to have more of your own property to enjoy visually.”

The 2012 storm served as a wake-up call for waterfront communities up and down the Eastern Seaboard — wreaking $70.2 billion worth of damage and destroying 650,000 homes in its wake, cementing it as one of the costliest natural disasters in the nation’s history. But one of Cordova’s builds was not among the wreckage.

“We’ve seen these projects succeed when they need to,” he said.

The new build on Daniels Lane in Sagaponack had just been completed before the storm rolled in, he recalled. It was compliant with updated FEMA codes that called for the house to be raised — with open space under the building for water to cut through — as well as a reinforced dune adjacent to the house.

In the aftermath, neighboring homes were “basically floating by,” Cordova recalled. One had been pushed across the street and, a few doors down, entire houses were destroyed — but not the one BMA Architects had just built.

“It was amazing. I mean, it brought tears to our eyes. We were proud of our work and sad for everybody else,” Cordova said, adding, “The dune essentially ended up in our swimming pool, but the house itself had about, maybe, a puddle inside one of the first floor sliding doors and other than that, the house and all of the materials were in perfect shape. It was a testament to what the FEMA code is trying to achieve and what good design can produce.”

There is an art to creating a FEMA-compliant home — and it usually starts with the drier, more practical variables, such as determining the base flood elevation, whether the flood zone requires breakaway walls, or flood vents, or both, and how to house utilities, the electrical and septic systems, and other mechanicals.

Then come the aesthetics, said architect Paul Masi.

“You’ve seen it, I’m sure, many times, where there’s a very straightforward, standard house, but then it’s just elevated on pilings — and it really doesn’t make sense,” said the partner at Bates Masi + Architects in East Hampton. “You can’t say one design is going to fit all circumstances, especially in that case. It really doesn’t. And where we practice and most of the sites that we do homes on, there’s always this relationship to the landscape.

“And so it sets up an interesting design problem of, how do you feel engaged with the landscape?” he continued, adding, “It really is a completely different animal.”

At The Up Studio, partner and architect John Patrick Winberry calls this lack of integration “the floating home with 1,000 stairs.” To avoid a haphazard feel, the Long Island City-based firm — which does work on the East End — aims to fold the elevation or stairs into the design.

“We don’t want to create this object in the air and then have a weird path to get to the object,” he said. “We want to bring the stairs into the overall design, because they’re needed and they should happen, but they should feel like it’s more part of the overall context of the design. So that’s something that we’ve been doing on our projects that have a significant elevation change.”

To bring a recent build into FEMA compliance, Winberry added to an already raised, existing foundation in East Hampton to create “Concealed Cottage,” designing the home itself to reveal the woodland and water views from the back, yet completely conceal itself from the street and neighboring properties by covering the facade in polished, reflective aluminum panels.

In Sagaponack, “Kiht’han” from Bates Masi + Architects uses a board and batten design to, at grade level, form an open screen that, in the case of a flood, would let water flow through it, as per FEMA regulations. Above, the overlapping boards and battens are opaque to mask neighboring houses from view and, at the roof line, the battens are omitted to let light filter between the boards.

“Instead of having one large mass, we ended up breaking up the house into smaller masses and connecting them with bridges to allow the water to flow through,” Masi said. “From an experiential aspect, walking between these pavilions and these glass enclosures or bridges really engages you into the landscaping. Frankly, when we first visited the site before we built the house, it was under a foot of water, so it was really interesting from that perspective — of starting to design and seeing what can happen.”

As for the area under a home that flood maps anticipate will eventually flood, Rouhani said she uses them to create “beautiful ‘found’ spaces” below the livable areas — turning them into features like covered porches or carports — which allows the float of the building above to be intentional.

“As we’re higher up, our outdoor terraces and outdoor living areas are also raised,” Cordova said. “You’re getting a completely different experience of indoor-outdoor living when you are elevated — and basically at eye level and above the dune.”

But as the impacts of climate change are felt on the East End, environmentalist groups are raising concerns about erosion and the effects of building bigger, and higher, along the coast. Montauk is on the front lines of the “strategic coastal retreat” movement, where many feel that moving back from the water, or at the very least adaptation, is inevitable.

“As long as there is water, people will want to be near it,” Rouhani said. “Where that water starts and stops in the future is a different question. I hope there comes a time where no more development on undeveloped land happens. We need to protect what land there is left in this community.

“As sea level rises, properties on the water will be affected, and there may come a time where those properties are no longer suitable to host structures,” she continued. “We are guests on this planet and, as conditions change, we will have to adjust accordingly.”

Other architects see a future where the architecture itself continues to adapt to a changing landscape and climate — “as long as people can afford to do it, it can be done right now, because there’s significant costs associated with this type of design,” Cordova said.

He pointed to floating houses that rise with floodwaters in Southeast Asia and England. Masi noted that in the United Arab Emirates, the nation is building artificial islands off the coast of Dubai. The possibilities are endless, between building materials and design, Rose said, but they all start with the insurance companies and innovation.

“There’s a lot of really smart people out there. I think we, as an industry and insurance companies in general, we’re putting Band-Aids on,” Rose said. “We’re not addressing the problem and anybody that says, ‘Well, stop building on the barrier beach,’ that’s just a bigger Band-Aid.

“We live on an island and we’re not all moving to the highest point,” he continued. “There just isn’t room — and you’re not going to take 100-year-old homes that are built pre-FEMA compliant and tell them they have to lift them up in the air. It’s so expensive to do it. It’s an issue that’s not going away anytime soon.”

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