Coastal Forces to Consider When Designing Oceanside Homes?quality=70&width=1500

Coastal Forces to Consider When Designing Oceanside Homes

By Jamie Schultz / 10/26/2017


Canadian-born architect Rachel Burton began her career designing homes to withstand enormous snowfalls. When she relocated to South Carolina, “I had to learn about hurricane-force winds, storm surges and soil liquefying,” says Burton, principal of Swallowtail Architecture in Summerville, S.C.

In Charleston, S.C., Christopher Rose, president of Christopher Rose Architects, designs attractive homes that can stand up to the area’s unique weather conditions. 

“Not only do we have to design for floods and hurricanes, but we also have seismic activity here,” Rose says.

Burton, Rose and other architects who practice on the coast must consider a host of environmental conditions before beginning each project. They are no strangers to these forces of nature that shape coastal designs.

Force of nature: caustic environments
“When you work in coastal areas, you need to understand what salt in the air can do to various products,” says Burton, who designs homes for island communities including Sullivan’s and Kiawah Islands. “You need to be thoughtful about what you are installing and where.”

Ocean air can wreak havoc on glass, paint and metal finishes. And it has the potential to shorten the lifespan of a host of homebuilding components if they aren’t designed and tested to withstand this harsh environment—everything from nails and flashing, to outdoor light fixtures, windows and even HVAC systems.

Hot, humid and salty air can also degrade interior finishes when clients leave windows and doors open for extended periods, so care must be taken with those, as well.

Some building products are designed with coastal weather considerations in mind. James Hardie provides siding products that are Engineered for Climate®. Their HZ10® product line was engineered for areas with hurricane-force winds, salty sea air of the coast, and the brutal, humid heat of the Deep South. Engineered specifically for these climates, HZ10 boards resist cracking, splitting, rotting and swelling after hot, humid, tropical storm seasons.

Force of nature: rain and flooding
Flooding is a particular concern in Charleston, S.C., the “low country,” where Christopher Rose practices. He estimates some 90 percent of the Charleston homes he designs are in flood zones.

In these homes, the first habitable floor is quite high relative to grade. Area building codes mandate these elevations for good reason.

But while necessary and prudent, these elevations present design challenges. Rose seeks to avoid a look he calls the “Mayan temple”—steep stairs leading up to an elevated front door. 

In his projects, exterior details draw the eyes up high and away from the foundation. Interesting exterior stairway designs, in “L” or “T” shapes, for instance, also help, he says.

Architect Michael McKinley, who designs coastal homes along the Eastern Seaboard and in Florida, says he often creates patios, screened-in porches and outdoor rooms that provide space for cookouts and beach access in these lower, flood-prone levels. Outdoor rooms can often be fully enclosed, so long as there is a partial breakaway and materials are water resistant, he says.

“This area doesn’t have to be a dead zone,” says McKinley, who is principal of Rhode Island-based Michael McKinley and Associates. “This can be a wonderful space where the home communicates with the ocean.”

Force of nature: wind
One of the biggest concerns for coastal-based architects and homeowners, however, may be high winds. 

“We spend a lot of time with windows and doors,” says McKinley, who does work in Dade County, Fla., where winds can reach 110 miles per hour.

In Dade County, McKinley says, code prescribes window size and type. Coastal homes often use impact glass on windows, tested to withstand flying debris and keep the home sealed in the event of a hurricane. 

Shutter systems are often employed in tandem with these specialized windows. Both may be necessary, particularly for those who own vacation homes and may not be around to close shutters or nail down plywood when storms threaten.

Making the situation more complicated is that coastal homes typically have lots of windows to maximize sought-after water views.

“When we design for coastal clients, we give them the water views from as much of the interior as possible—even the laundry room,” McKinley says.

In the end, each project represents a unique situation with its own challenges, which must be embraced, says Jim Cutler, principal of Bainbridge Island, Wash.-based Cutler Anderson Architects. He’s designed oceanfront homes all over the world, including one on the Big Island of Hawaii’s rainy and windy north shore, with a courtyard that blocks strong gusts but reveals the view.

Well-trained architects, he says, are pros at accepting and responding to the reality of the circumstances in which they work. And this makes their designs all the more relevant.

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