Many coastal homes require pilings or stilts to keep them above flood level. But what do you do with all that space between the ground and the first floor?

By Michael Haigley
March 27, 2006
Jean Allsopp

Protect It
There are smart ways to design a house on a flood-prone site, such as pointing the narrower side of the house seaward. Also, don't anchor decks to exterior walls―they could pull the house apart when winds and waters rise. Always ask contractors how they plan to combat storm conditions before beginning construction.

Cover It Up
Most architects hate disguising the space below the house with lattice or other barely there materials. If you don't want to leave the gap exposed, breakaway walls may be a good choice. Constructed of concrete, wood, metal, or plastic, these walls literally break away in storms without compromising the strength of your foundation.

Resist Temptation
If you choose to close off this space, your stuff will migrate there. You'll be tempted to make it into a real room, complete with electrical service and plumbing. Don't do it! Assume everything in it will someday be under water, at least temporarily. It's the deal you make with the sea. Sometimes you're neighbors; sometimes you're roommates.

Get the facts
The best source for what you can and cannot do with the space beneath an elevated beach house is FEMA's Technical Fact Sheet No. 27, "Enclosures and Breakaway Walls," which is part of the agency's "Home Builder's Guide to Coastal Construction" series (FEMA 499). To find out how to qualify for federally backed flood insurance, check out the maps for base flood elevations, too.

How to Use the Space Below

  • Hang a hammock or swing, or bring in a picnic table and enjoy the shade.
  • Build a rack to store boats and tools.
  • Add container gardens full of shade-loving plants.
  • Frame entrances with drapes made from outdoor fabric.
  • Landscape the perimeter or grow vines on exterior walls to soften the look.