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.

By Ben Brown
January 18, 2005
Anthony John Coletti

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

"What do you do if you want what you build to last?" Howardasks. He and his client Jerome Mirza of Chicago collaborated on aFlorida home designed to answer that question. Theirproject―an 11-year-old compound on Little Gasparilla Island,along the state's southwest Gulf coast―underwent the ultimatetest last August when Hurricane Charley's eye passed some 10 milesto the south and gouged a path of destruction northward. Despitethe 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 ofthe concrete cottage she and husband Harry had built on LittleLagoon. It took bulldozers three days to remove the rubble of theirneighbors' homes from the Wilders' yard. But their cottage escapedintact.

The performance of these storm-zone homes depends on theirskeletal structures―industrial-strength components fabricatedelsewhere and shipped to the site. For Jerome's house, Howardspecified laminate wood posts and beams of the type seen in bridgesand large churches. They support the deep overhangs and keep theelevated structure from twisting in high winds. The Wilders'cottage, featured in our 2004 "Building to Last" section andrevisited this year after surviving Ivan, has walls of mortarlessconcrete block that imitate the look of architectural stone.

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

The Wilders took a different modular approach. Each of theircottage's concrete blocks, manufactured as elements in a systemcalled DAC-ART, had a number to correspond to a position on thebuilding plan. Architectural details were cast into the blockscheme. The blocks provide the interior and exterior surfaces, sothere was no need for siding or drywall.

But it takes more than a modular system to create a stalwarthome. While major components of these structures werefactory-produced, the stormworthiness of both requiredcomplementary product choices and quality on-site workmanship.Lundy grouted the block and scored the concrete floor herself. Andshe chose a cost-effective, panelized approach to metal roofingendorsed by locals who had installed and repaired many otherkinds.

On Little Gasparilla Island, Howard relied upon a local piledriver who sank supporting posts some 14 feet into the ground andhad them aligned perfectly for the laminate frame when it arrivedby 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, aswell. It's important that they know their contributions are key tothe success of the project."