Building to Last: Weathering the Storm

Anthony John Coletti
Our special section highlights the latest in building technology and smart construction that help coastal residents face Mother Nature at her best―and at her worst.

When homeowners build on the coast, they "want to be in a position to observe all that marvelous nature without disrupting it," says Illinois architect Howard Holtzman. But being there also means being involved with a sometimes-volatile environment, one with driving rain, high winds, and storm surges.

"What do you do if you want what you build to last?" Howard asks. He and his client Jerome Mirza of Chicago collaborated on a Florida home designed to answer that question. Their project―an 11-year-old compound on Little Gasparilla Island, along the state's southwest Gulf coast―underwent the ultimate test last August when Hurricane Charley's eye passed some 10 miles to the south and gouged a path of destruction northward. Despite the blow, the Mirza house and guest cottage fared well.

Several weeks later, when Ivan roared into Gulf Shores, Alabama, Lundy Wilder says floodwaters rose 9 feet on the outside walls of the concrete cottage she and husband Harry had built on Little Lagoon. It took bulldozers three days to remove the rubble of their neighbors' homes from the Wilders' yard. But their cottage escaped intact.

The performance of these storm-zone homes depends on their skeletal structures―industrial-strength components fabricated elsewhere and shipped to the site. For Jerome's house, Howard specified laminate wood posts and beams of the type seen in bridges and large churches. They support the deep overhangs and keep the elevated structure from twisting in high winds. The Wilders' cottage, featured in our 2004 "Building to Last" section and revisited this year after surviving Ivan, has walls of mortarless concrete block that imitate the look of architectural stone.

Increasingly, coastal designers and homeowners recognize the weather risks and utilize factory design, technology, and assembly techniques to achieve structural stability. Howard's laminate house frame was built in Arkansas and erected by a crew sent to the island by the manufacturer. The design was so well-planned in the factory, assemblers only had to drill two new holes on site.

The Wilders took a different modular approach. Each of their cottage's concrete blocks, manufactured as elements in a system called DAC-ART, had a number to correspond to a position on the building plan. Architectural details were cast into the block scheme. The blocks provide the interior and exterior surfaces, so there was no need for siding or drywall.

But it takes more than a modular system to create a stalwart home. While major components of these structures were factory-produced, the stormworthiness of both required complementary product choices and quality on-site workmanship. Lundy grouted the block and scored the concrete floor herself. And she chose a cost-effective, panelized approach to metal roofing endorsed by locals who had installed and repaired many other kinds.

On Little Gasparilla Island, Howard relied upon a local pile driver who sank supporting posts some 14 feet into the ground and had them aligned perfectly for the laminate frame when it arrived by barge. "You want to do things that are special in the shop," says Howard. "But you want locals to do what they're good at, as well. It's important that they know their contributions are key to the success of the project."

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