Durable Beach House Construction

Vicki writes: What are the most crucial parts of designing a beach house? Does the weather or any environmental changes have big impacts on beach houses? How can an architect design a house that will limit those impacts? What shapes or building styles are suitable for beaches? How long does it take to come up with a design?

Steve Bliss, of BuildingAdvisor.com responds: The short answer is that, yes, there are a number of critical issues in designing and building a beach house and established ways to deal with them. The needs of your specific house will depend upon the distance from the shore and the exposure to wind and water, soil conditions, and local building codes. In hurricane-prone areas, the building will need to withstand both high winds and flying debris. If the exterior of a home is penetrated by debris during a hurricane, it becomes highly vulnerable to extreme damage – both from water and wind. The wind can enter the house, pressurize it, and literally explode it. So the wall and roof sheathing, siding, roofing, doors, and windows must all be chosen and installed with this in mind. Most of these issues are governed by building codes and wind-speed maps that determine which specific rules apply to your building site.

Most important, I believe, are:

  • Foundation: You and your team (architect, engineer, builder) need to assess the soil type, stability, erosion potential, etc., to create a sturdy and durable foundation that can withstand the natural forces that it will be subjected to. Some areas will require special foundations or elevated piers to allow flood waters to flow below the house without damaging it structurally. Sometimes “breakaway” walls are used on the first story, which would be used for parking or storage only. The walls are designed to easily break away in a storm surge without harming the structure of the house.
  • Structure: There are special structural requirements to create a house that can withstand high winds. These typically include “hold-down” hardware in the framing, special nailing and bracing, and reinforced “shear walls” to strengthen the frame. These help keep the house from being torn apart, tipped over, or moved off the foundation.
  • Windows: Special reinforced windows are designed to withstand high winds and impacts from flying debris. Additional storm shutters may also be advisable.
  • Roofing should be selected and installed with high winds in mind. High wind ratings can be achieved with special products or special installation techniques often involving extra sealant and nails. The same is true for siding and exterior trim boards. Other exterior components such as porches, decks, and chimneys will also need additional reinforcement. Pay extra attention to roof, wall and window flashing. Flashing details that work fine in normal construction may do poorly against horizontal wind-blown rain.
  • To reduce the maintenance cost and burdens, it’s a good idea to choose exterior materials that are either naturally resistant to harsh weather, such as decay-resistant woods (redwood, cedar, cypress, ipe, etc.), or synthetic and composite materials designed for exposure to the elements with little or no maintenance. These would be materials such as cellular PVC trim (such as Azek), composite decking and trim (such as Trex), and fiber-cement (like Hardiboard). I would avoid anything on the exterior that requires painting, such as exterior trim or wood window frames. Vinyl or fiberglass windows would be a better choice, as they are less likely to attract mold, mildew, and wood decay, from the high humidity.
  • In general, choose materials that will tolerate salt water and salt air exposure, which is very corrosive. That means high-quality stainless steel fasteners and flashings made of copper, lead, or rubberized membranes. Hardware should be stainless-steel, copper, or solid (not plated) brass. Even on the interior, choose materials that are not prone to mold and mildew or metal corrosion.

Other environmental issues, such as rising sea levels are certainly something I would be thinking about building close to the ocean. Higher seas and storm surges, and possibly more powerful and more frequent storms could make beachfront homes an even more costly and complex endeavor.

Your questions about design are more difficult to answer. Aesthetic choices are personal. I like houses that blend into the surroundings and fit in with the traditional homes in the area. Often these use materials, such as cedar shingles, that are well suited to the environment. So look around and see what’s already there and what you like. Certainly, some designs will more easily shed the wind than others, but any shape can be engineered to withstand high winds with enough structural support (and money).

For a floorplan, I would consider and “open” plan – good for entertaining and good for cross ventilation which will help prevent mold and mildew. Also consider outdoor living spaces such as decks and patios – an inexpensive way to increase your living area. And don’t forget ample storage for recreational equipment.

Look for an architect whose work you like and who has extensive experience with coastal building. Then you will need to find a contractor with the same type of experience. The architect can probably provide you with some names. The design process is interactive and can take from three to six months or longer. It’s best to bring your ideas to the architect to point him/her in the right direction, which will save you time and money. You can get design ideas from plan books, magazines, photos you take of houses you like. You should drive the process with your needs, wishes, and budget, but be open to the architect’s suggestions.

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