Like most of you, I have spent the last two months quarantined. I’m a bit embarrassed to say it, but just as nobility fled the cities during the plagues of the Middle Ages, we’ve been lucky enough to escape densely populated Boston, a hotpot for the pandemic, and spend our days along the shore in Marshfield, a small town about 45 minutes south, where we have a weekend house. I must constantly remind myself that it could be far worse.
One of the benefits of this place are opportunities to stroll the beaches and neighborhoods. Walking is by far the best way to see things that you often don’t see from a car. One glaring phenomenon I have noticed is the increasing numbers of what I am calling The Baseless House. These are houses that seem to be plopped on pressure-treated piers or high concrete-foundation walls, regardless of the site or the design of the house.
Most of these new houses are not what we would call “high-end” design, but some, like the one shown above, aren’t all that bad, referencing the steep roofs and porches of the neighborhood houses around it. Others are far less successful.
But what they all have in common is a rather misbegotten space under the house that is neither fish nor fowl. This space is the direct consequence of the FEMA regulations and flood maps issued in 2016 that have been adopted nationwide and have had a profound effect on the first-floor heights of structures built along marshes or waterways. The height requirement varies from region to region and even neighborhood to neighborhood. My own neighborhood now sits in a relatively high-risk AE Zone (down one zone from the most-restrictive VE Zone) defined within the 100-year flood limits and reflects the combined influence of stillwater flood elevations and wave effects of under 3 feet.
From a practical perspective, the outcome of that designation determines what height you must set the underside of the first floor of your structure. On my street, the required underside was previously 9 feet above base flood elevation (BFE), which FEMA refers to as the 1% annual-chance flood, or 100-year flood. Under the new FEMA regulations, that required elevation for my neighborhood is now 16 feet. The consequences are obviously significant. On my own street, which is 8 feet, my current first-floor elevation is 11 feet, just a few feet above grade (see the stair photo, below). But if I were to build the house today, there would be a full 7-foot difference. Where once it was just a few steps up to the first-floor elevations, if built today, it would be almost a complete story of steps.
A 7-foot difference means a lot since there is now, in reality, no such thing as a single-story house. The elderly or infirmed are simply out of luck, and it’s not hard to imagine long term social changes in neighborhoods as a result. Houses are taller, too, and local building departments have begun to grant exemptions from former building height restrictions, typically somewhere around 30–35 feet. Now, much to the chagrin of fire departments, it is not unusual to see houses that are up to 45 feet tall, sometimes beyond the reach of their ladders—a good, if unfortunate, example of unintended consequences.
All of those practical consequences aside, the aesthetic consequences are even worse. It’s clear from my walks around the neighborhood that no one is considering the design ramifications of the new FEMA regulations. Instead, in a kind of crude first stab at climate change mitigation, they’re simply building their standard house designs of the past on top of high piles or concrete foundations with no regard to how it might look.
The idea of a high first story set above wetlands in areas prone to flooding is not new in this country. In the antebellum South, it was not unusual to see such houses. Their unique blend of practical and design considerations may be the perfect model for our time. Their reasoning was somewhat different, and there was still no getting around the fact that the main floor was still a full story high, but the elegant visual result produced iconic images that are still admired and copied to this day.
Like all good design solutions, they responded to several needs. In addition to the occasional requirement to guard against moisture or flooding, the weather was hot and humid most of the year, so it made good sense to lift the first floor and open it to cross-ventilation. The large roof overhangs and deep porches contributed further to comfort in a time before mechanical air conditioning. The lower floor was often the kitchen, accessory spaces, or servants’ quarters. The solution was both practical and beautiful. Someone once said that every good house has a base, middle, and top, and these antebellum houses are perfect examples. Our attention is not drawn to one awkward part or the other. Unlike the contemporary houses in my neighborhood, these houses are a complete whole with a clear base, middle and top.
Are there lessons to be learned from these historical precedents? I think so. We live in a different time, and our needs have changed, but the new FEMA regulations can be an opportunity to reexamine the house program for a new prototype, one that is both functional and beautiful. The most obvious solution is to screen the lower level in a way that ties it to the upper level, or at least does not work against it, visually. This was certainly true in the southern plantations with a continuous row of columns that were uninterrupted from the lower level to the upper level. In the two examples I first showed in my neighborhood, why not pull some of the trim details from the upper level down to the lower level to screen the piles or concrete? In other words, give the house a better base. The screened space could be used for parking or storage space. This is not a new idea, since I’ve seen it used in other parts of the country, but strangely enough around here, the height under the house only complies with the regulations and doesn’t take into account possible uses, so often that space is just short of being functional. Why not also increase the height by just enough to use as parking or other accessory spaces? Would an increase in a foot or a few risers make much of a difference when you already have to climb an additional 7 feet?
I bought our house in Marshfield about 10 years ago. At the time, I complied with the current local and FEMA height regulations. The site also sloped steeply down to the water on the backside. The previous owners had left the piles exposed, just as everyone else in the neighborhood had done. After buying the house, we changed the siding, added a few brightly colored windows, and gave the house a real base by screening it in part with horizontal boarding, yet keeping it open just enough for secure storage and boat access—simple enough and perhaps one way to make our contemporary FEMA dilemma palatable.
There is no doubt that the FEMA regulations are here to stay and that they will have a significant effect on future building. But every problem is an opportunity, so the most important point to keep in mind is that climate change mitigation, in all its various forms, is essentially a design problem. As I walk around my neighborhood, I realize more than ever that designers have a unique opportunity to offer house design guidelines or prototypes for the future that others may not realize.
Featured image by the author. Marshfield, MA, May 2020.