Architects take new approach in post-Sandy world of building
Residential architects in South Jersey are spending lots of time lately helping their clients find appropriate responses to flooding after Hurricane Sandy.
George Loza, owner of Loza Architecture in Brigantine, said he has been getting plenty of calls from clients interested elevating their homes higher on piles or razing and starting over with a home better able to withstand future storms.
Loza, of Brigantine, said the hurricane divided New Jersey’s construction regulations and practices into two eras: pre-Sandy and post-Sandy.
“It doesn’t matter what happened in construction before Sandy. We’re in a post-Sandy world. We need to approach things in a different way,” he said.
Gov. Chris Christie last week issued an emergency order establishing new base flood elevations that require new construction to begin as much as 5 feet higher than the old guidelines. The changes are based on maps developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency before Hurricane Sandy.
But it remains to be seen how zoning and planning boards apply these standards to actual construction applications.
“At least now we know. But now it’s in the cities’ court to see how they’ll adjust their zoning rules to adapt,” said Mark Asher, owner of Asher Associates Architects in Stone Harbor.
Asher, of Ocean City, said zoning experts were predicting that the FEMA maps would undergo revisions and fine-tuning to reflect specific conditions that computer modeling might not have considered, such as new bulkheads. Now towns will have to figure out how to accommodate the needs of applicants and their neighbors under conditions such as height restrictions that already had little wiggle room.
“How do we give people 2 more feet of height?” he said. “You can’t make zoning changes unilaterally because you’ll make all these other houses nonconforming or set yourself up for lawsuits by neighbors. Nobody wants that.”
Asher said even in places hardest hit by the hurricane, such as Long Beach Island, newer homes built to stricter flood elevations sustained less damage, and requiring even stricter standards in some cases would be overkill.
“The reality is we’ve built hundreds of homes in all these coastal towns — from Cape May to Longport — and they had no damage, none. The codes in effect now worked very well,” he said. “The houses are strapped and anchored and bolted for high winds. They’re up above base flood, and we had no problems. All these changes coming at us have us scratching our heads a little.”
Architects said they still need planning and zoning boards to answer many unresolved questions posed by the stricter elevation standards.
“Some things are crystal clear. But there are just as many things up in the air,” said Jim McAfee, an architect with the Dennis Township firm Blane Steinman Architects.
McAfee, of Upper Township, said with New Jersey’s complicated zoning rules, it’s not always as simple as lifting a house a few feet out of harm’s way.
“The clients we have are concerned. We’re just trying to educate them as we get educated,” he said.
The storm has created a sense of urgency both among homeowners and planners to make changes to address vulnerability before the next coastal flood.
Realistically, any major changes to municipal zoning could take many months, or even years, to sort out. Homeowners want to make sure the changes will be sufficient to guarantee them lower rates on their flood-insurance premiums.
Will towns require variances if the raised homes suddenly exceed existing height restrictions?
That’s not the only consideration when homes get taller, said William Salerno, founding partner for SOSH Architects in Atlantic City.
The higher the home, the more room it needs for stairs or handicapped ramps, which can encroach on front- or side-yard setbacks.
“If your first floor was 60 inches above grade, you would need 60 feet of ramp. That’s a lot,” he said. “That’s going to be prohibitive. More people will be putting elevators into their homes. You’ll see a lot more carports under houses.”
Shore towns such as Sea Isle City have eagerly awaited the new federal floodplain rules. City construction officer Neil Byrne Jr. last week said that before any zoning changes were considered, the city first needed guidance on where new construction should start.
“That is why this is not a simple discussion. It’s a very complex issue in Sea Isle,” he said.
Sea Isle has several pending applications for new construction along with numerous other properties that are waiting to be elevated off their foundations, he said. Byrne, who lives in Sea Isle City, said he is not worried that residents will lose the motivation to make changes if the process drags on too long.
“What’s going to drive people to make changes to their properties will be when their (flood-insurance) rates go up. If their rates go up, it will be a financial decision,” he said.
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