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Building on the Water

October 25, 2014


Water – Living in love with it, without breaking your heart (or budget) The romantic allure of waterside living is undeniable, but back in Colonial times no one wanted to live on or near the coast who could afford to live inland. The coast was fraught with danger – storms, flooding, disease and wind are more severe on the water than inland. Those perils still exist, but are managed today, and living by the ocean, lakes or rivers has gone from scary liability to desired asset.

Managing risk by the water means better building practices and stringent code requirements for new construction and major renovations of existing homes. Those codes stringently mandate structural design standards, setbacks from water, and site design limitations, all intended to minimize the impact of flooding and on any coastal site and wind on the oceanfront.

Most regulations set maximums – how tall your house can be, how big your footprint is, or how many bedrooms you can have. But regulations that make it safer to live by the water require minimums – most classically a minimum height of a home’s lowest floor above where a high tide, flood level or tidal surge might get to. Similarly safe distance to the edge of the water is prescribed, and even the nature of the finished grading is reviewed and verified not to direct water dangerously towards your neighbors.

From foundations up to design requirements to resist high winds water focused home design plays by a whole separate rule book from its landed compatriots. In those “high wind velocity” areas the actually type of glass can be prescribed, and in the most dangerously exposed areas (as determined by the Federal guidelines as required by FEMA) protections for all the doors and windows – expensive shutters or plywood panels that could be installed when storms hit.

Even if you are living lightly by a marsh, far away from any windswept ocean or flooding river, the water on your site regulates where your septic can be, how you can add onto your home, or the level of your basement. Because all regulations key on where the water is as a line on your site plan, and what level your land is, a survey will be required to nail down what limitations are present on your site, and an experienced local attorney could be necessary as well.

There are several essential ways homes near water have to have their aesthetics shaped by where they are built.

These dimensional and structural requirements often require licensed engineers to determine what standards apply and then design to those standards– and architects can really help in accommodating the lofting of your home to the appropriate height as required.

The brutality of the weather on sites on the water mean painted surfaces are not a good idea as the sun, wind and rain tend to erode any coating. So masonry, vinyl, natural wood shingles and increasingly PVC plastic are often the default settings for exterior cladding.

Doors and windows that open and close by sliding simply do not seal as well as doors and windows that swing on hinges.

Simple roof shapes that avoid valleys (folds in the roof between gables and dormers) resist water.

Roof overhangs and porches shed the intense sun and drenching wind-driven rain that often accompany waterside sites. 

Where you build can have a huge impact on what you build – and no more so than when the forces of nature threaten your home. The beauty of water is undeniable, but its dangers prevented our ancestors from valuing it –until technology made its dangers less daunting. But those technologies have impacts on the design of the homes that bask in the undeniable allure of waterside living.

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