A-to-Z Guide to Building at the Beach
A is for Architect
Hire an architect with a good understanding of your coastal area. Every beach has a unique temperament—seasonal patterns of wind direction, fog, humidity—and the pros you hire should be able to navigate these factors to your best advantage. "Just remember that anything on or near the beach needs to be resilient and adaptable, or unflinchingly durable— including your architect," says Los Angeles architect Tim Barber. "On the coast, your first and dearest plan may not work. You need someone who can quickly come up with a good Plan B."
B is for Blinds
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C is for Copper
Copper is the coast's all-star, all-weather metal. Try weather vanes and exterior light fixtures made of solid copper, roof flashing crafted of lead-coated copper, and hardware made of bronze, which is primarily copper.
D is for Dark-Sky Lighting
Q: What is dark-sky lighting?
A: Available through most lighting retailers, these exterior fixtures are designed to minimize light pollution, in particular upward glare. In addition to preserving natural nocturnal conditions for shore-dwelling animals (for instance, sea turtle hatchlings that are guided by the light from the horizon), dark-sky lighting increases the visibility of stars at night.
Pictured: Bay Crest wall mount light in brushed aluminum
E is for Energy Audit
Hire a professional to perform an energy audit of your beach house. He or she can examine everything from the efficiency of your appliances to air leaks in entryways, and recommend some high-impact fixes. The cost of an audit can run between $300 and $500, but the changes you make can result in monthly savings of up to 30 percent on your bill.
F is for Flooring
These flooring options are beach-friendly:
Painted wood: is great for hiding sand. Use epoxy paints or marine-grade deck paints.
Cerused oak: (a.k.a. limed oak) has filled and highlighted grain lines to protect against moisture.
Stained concrete: is virtually indestructible—great for indoor/outdoor rooms.
Pictured: cerused oak floors on a screened porch on the Jersey Shore
G is for Ground Floor
Make smart use of ground-floor areas under elevated homes. "In the floodplain, these areas need to be open to protect against storm surge," says Charleston architect Beau Clowney, "but that openness also makes for a great shaded outdoor living room." Breakaway walls or slatted swinging doors offer a pass-through for storm water, but they also maintain privacy. Just be sure and furnish with weather-resistant furniture that can be easily stored.
H is for Hurricane-Resistant Design
Tropical cyclone damage from 2005 to 2015 totaled more than $286 billion, with Hurricane Katrina becoming the costliest disaster in U.S. history. (Superstorm Sandy in 2012 ranks second.) Modern building mandates have been updated to require impact-resistant windows, hurricane shutters, and reinforced doors, among other safeguards. But strength also lies in design. Concrete-block construction is widely used in the Caribbean for its storm strength; according to the New Jersey Institute of Technology, hip roofs (four slopes) stand up better to high winds than gable roofs (two slopes). Talk to your architect and builder about the latest technology, including impact-resistant screens and drainable, dryable wall systems.
Pictured: This Long Beach, Mississippi, home is crafted of cement blocks, which were filled with concrete for stability.
I is for IQ
(Your home's could use a boost.) Smarter house technology is tailor-made for maintaining vacation homes and rental properties from afar. Install water leak and mold sensors that alert you to problems via text message, or even air conditioning thermostats that use your phone's GPS to adjust temps based on your proximity.
J is for Jib
Jib (hidden) doors are a smart pick for turning unused space under stairs and along hallways into cleverly concealed storage, which is at a premium in busy family beach houses. Jib doors appear flush with the wall and lack architectural adornments, streamlining corridors while making use of the space behind them. "Guests and kids travel with a lot of gear, and dedicated spots for storage, particularly with shelving, help cut down on clutter," says Los Angeles architect Tim Barber.
K is for Kitchen Countertops
Replacing the kitchen countertops is a high-impact upgrade for older beach house kitchens. San Francisco interior designer Elizabeth Cooper recommends soapstone or honed Zimbabwe black granite for best durability. "They both hold up incredibly well, and they're a classic counterpoint to the light cabinetry I like to use in beach house interiors. In a Martha's Vineyard house I designed, we chose pale oak cabinetry and black soapstone countertops, and the kitchen looks like a beautiful, cozy ship's cabin." Tops on her list for best-in-show beauty are white Carrara marble or mahogany-stained teak countertops. "The patina of those natural materials really enhances that coastal feeling and aesthetic," notes Cooper.
L is for Laundry Rooms
Laundry rooms that open to the outside are the ultimate drop zone, eliminating trails of sand and salt water through the house, says San Francisco architect Lewis Butler. Even better: connect the laundry to a bath with an open shower, sloped floor, central drain, and waterproof baseboards for a kid-friendly setup that cleans up towels and kids before they hit the furniture.
Pictured: Through this coastal Massachusettes cottage's sliding laundry room doors is a perky yellow and white bathroom with a large shower that's perfect for a rinse after a sun- and sand-filled day.
M is for Quality Materials
Quality materials that can withstand sun, sand, salt, and wind are important no matter which coast you call home, whether the storm-prone Southeast or the blustery Northwest. Time-tested materials like simple cedar or stuccoed masonry with a natural limewash finish are good choices for longevity, says Clowney. Barber recommends seeking out materials that are rated fire-resistant, like cement-fiber wall surfaces. "The same qualities that make these materials flame resistant make them sound choices for withstanding the harsh coastal elements," says Barber.
N is for Natural Landscape
Keep the natural landscape clear as a bell by using low-iron glass. Windows and doors containing glass with high amounts of iron produce a green tint, Butler says.
O is for Outdoor Shower
Don't skip the outdoor shower. A basic installation can run less than $1,000, while one with all the bells and whistles (think spa-like showerheads and custom stone privacy enclosures) may cost anywhere from $4,000 to upwards of $8,000. Be sure and hire a contractor who can tap into your beach house's existing water lines and knows how to keep runoff from leaking into the home's foundation. Your first decision? Whether to shower in the sun or the shade.
P is for Paneling
Two paneling styles we love in a beach house? Beadboard and shiplap. Here's the difference between the two:
Beadboard is a tongue-and-groove-style wood paneling that is typically hung vertically in strips (and now, often sold in large panels). Raised beads and recesses carved into the millwork help disguise the joints, which expand and contract with seasonal moisture. Beadboard originated in the late 19th century as a way to protect the walls in high-traffic areas, but home-owners later found that its simplicity and durability lent it to summerhouses, and began using it as a wall material throughout.
Shiplap paneling is often wider and hung horizontally across interior walls. The rough-sawn boards tend to range in width and fit together via rabbets, or grooves, that run the length of the boards and overlap to form a tight, weatherproof seal (as opposed to beadboard, which fits together with intermittent tongues and grooves). Shiplap was originally used in barns and other outbuildings, but like beadboard, found its way into the spotlight for its durability in seasonal homes.
Pictured: white beadboard paneling gives this Hamptons summer house bedroom a cozy cottage feel.
Q is for Quiet Appliances
Quiet appliances are genius for cutting down on excess noise (aren't beach houses rowdy enough?). For the neighborhood party pad: Consider a garbage disposal with noise insulation to keep cleanup from interrupting the flow of conversation. For the teeny tiny cottage: Look for a washer/dryer duo with minimal vibration so that it keeps a low profile in whatever room it squeezes into (the kitchen, a bedroom). For the come-one, come-all family beach house: Go with a dishwasher that touts a noise level lower than 50 decibels and you may forget that it's constantly running.
R is for Railings
Choose deck and balcony railings that preserve your line of sight. For instance, self-cleaning glass railings—these have special coatings that react with sunlight to break down dirt and use rainwater as a natural rinse—narrow iron rails, and stainless steel cables are less intrusive than their bulkier ornamental predecessors. The ideal option, says Clowney, is a design that terraces the steps down to ground level, eliminating the need for safety rails.
S is for Square Footage Smarts
To keep square footage in check when renovating to accommodate growing families, go small in bedrooms, big in common areas. "To make the most of bedroom quarters, I like to do Jefferson beds, or built-in beds, along the outside edges of the room—it works for both kids and adults, and gives the center of the room a more spacious feeling," says Cooper. "Plus, the more room you save in bedrooms, the more space you have for the areas you share with family and friends, like living rooms, dining areas, and kitchens."
T is for Trim
Steal-of-the-century beach shack owners, this one's for you: Adding interior trim brings depth and dimension to plain Jane rooms and is a dynamite DIY project. Just keep scale and proportion in check with some basic rules of thumb, bearing in mind that smaller trim leans more contemporary, larger leans more traditional:
- Baseboard: 7 percent of the height of the wall
- Chair rail & wainscot: One-third of the height of the wall—great for making ceilings appear taller
- Window & door casing: Aim for half the height of your baseboards.
- Plate rail: Install these handy storage shelves 1½ to 2 feet below the ceiling.
- Crown molding: For 8-foot ceilings, between 2½ and 6 inches; for 10-foot ceilings, 3½ to 8 inches
U is for Up, Up, and Away
Going up? Elevators aren't just a smart investment for baby boomers settling into forever homes along the coast: Experts reported an estimated 30 percent jump in residential elevator sales in 2015, which is consistent with their rising popularity between 2004 and 2007 (pre housing market crash). Costco trips and unloading a summer's worth of suitcases just got a whole lot easier, and then some.
V is for Ventilation
Encourage natural ventilation. "Look to the historic homes in the Caribbean and throughout the South for lessons on how the right design elements can help keep beach houses cool," says Clowney. "For instance, simply adding a porch to one or two sides of the house can go a long way; it serves as a big awning keeping direct sunlight from hitting the rooms." He also recommends looking for ways to keep air moving, such as carving out center halls that run from the front to the back of the house with a door at either end to usher breezes through.
W is for Saving Water
Save more water. A packed beach house nets big demands on H2O and energy both, so look into new hybrid water heaters that heat up almost immediately and connect to WiFi so you can monitor usage and ensure you're not heating water when you're not home.
X is for X Factor
What’s yours? Think island-inspired Bermuda shutters in hibiscus pink, a stately widow's walk topping the roof, or tropical pineapple details on the fence posts. Bonus: You get to say things like, "Swing by for happy hour! We're the house with the bright teal door."
Y is for Yearly Deck Maintenance
Perform yearly deck maintenance to avoid costly and frequent replacements. Exposure to salt air, moisture, and sunshine is especially tough on wooden decks; they should be resealed annually to prevent damage. At the same time, replace warped or cracked boards, strengthen railings that have any give, and check for missing flashing (the strips of metal that direct water away from vulnerable areas, like where the house meets the deck).
Z is for Catching Some Zs
Savor a vacation-worthy snooze by fashioning an old-school sleeping porch. Enclose a veranda (upstairs gets the best breezes) with charcoal or black aluminum screening, which will keep the bugs out and guard against the sun’s glare—essential for afternoon snoozes. Add a ceiling fan with a UL damp rating (meaning it can withstand the elements so long as it’s in a covered area) and a hanging bed oriented toward the view. With a pair of outdoor club chairs and a bar cart, your afternoon napping spot can double as a cozy cocktail lounge for watching the sun go down.
Meet the Beach House Renovation Expert
"The most important advice I have for tackling a renovation at the beach is to think of the beach as another planet. The sunlight, winds, surf or beach noise, temperature swings, and humidity are different here, and are big factors in every decision you make"
—Architect Tim Barber, Los Angeles
Meet the Beach House Renovation Expert
"I like to advise clients to really think outside of the box at the beach—how can we reinvent this space? How can we maximize its connection to the outdoors? How can we highlight its inherent strengths?"
—Architect Beau Clowney, Charleston
Meet the Beach House Renovation Expert
"The most exciting thing about a fixer-upper at the beach? The possibilities. Before the first wall even comes down, people see a place where they can escape and relax. It's exciting to watch the happiness factor go up as we near completion"
—Interior Designer Elizabeth Cooper, San Francisco & New York
Meet the Beach House Renovation Expert
"The first step in any remodeling project is figuring out what is really "broken" about the design of the house. It's so exciting when you can turn a home's weak point into its greatest strength"
—Architect Lewis Butler, San Francisco