Rebuilding After Hurricane Sandy: How One Small Architecture Firm Rose to the Challenge [Part 1]

by Kylee Swenson
Architecture - Mar 13 2013 - 5 min read
rebuilding_after_sandy
A photo taken by Mary Hearn during her visit to Ortley Beach, NJ in January

When Hurricane Sandy ripped through the East Coast last October—as kids were finalizing Halloween costumes—houses were twisted off their frames, smashed into one another, or completely torn away with nothing but sand left in their stead.

Mary Hearn is the owner of M. B. Hearn Architecture, the only architecture firm located on Main Street in the small town of Belmar, New Jersey. Since she opened the firm’s doors on January 1, 2000, the LEED-certified architect and her team of three secured work through word of mouth, local builders, or the local municipality. These days, their phones ring off the hook. The firm has more than 20 Hurricane Sandy recovery projects  in the works.

Aside from the time Hearn spends designing houses (using AutoCAD), she also acts as part-time therapist to her clients. “I’ve often said I’m a marriage counselor because the wife wants a 5,000-square-foot house, but the husband wants to pay for a 2,000-square-foot house,” she says with a laugh. But sadly, and on more than one occasion, Hearn has seen clients divorce during the construction phase.

Rebuilding After Hurricane Sandy
A photo taken by Mary Hearn during her visit to Ortley Beach, N.J. in January 2013

From Architect to Psychologist
Hearn’s job has never been more emotional than during the process of rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy. “A few days after the storm, we got a call from people that own a home in Brick,” she says. “When their house flooded, they had four feet of water in their lower level, so they gutted it, had it mold re-mediated, and called us two or three days after the storm.”

Trying to make good from bad, the couple planned to relocate their kitchen, dining room, and living room to the lower level of their bi-level home, which would give them immediate access to their backyard and beach. But Hearn was hesitant: “I said, ‘Do you really want to put all this money into kitchen, dining, and living on this level when you know it just flooded?’ They said, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve been here 20 years. This is the only time it’s happened. It’s been our dream.’”

Before signing a contract and collecting a deposit, Hearn requested a base-flood elevation certificate, which the couple had previously acquired from a surveyor to qualify for flood insurance. Upon receiving the certificate, Hearn and her team measured the house and worked on drawings. Weeks later, FEMA released new advisory maps with information collected from Sandy that put a wrench in the couple’s plan.

rebuilding after hurricane sandy
The side of this house in Mantoloking, N.J. was torn away during Hurricane Sandy.

“If you had four feet of water on your property where you never had it before, the advisory map is showing that your new base-flood elevation is four feet higher,” Hearn says. “Those maps came out so the local municipalities would have some kind of target and use them as new benchmarks to require things be lifted. Prior to the storm, my clients’ base-flood elevation was grade, at elevation 8. Their first floor was at elevation 9, only one foot above the ground. And the old rules are still in place that you can’t improve a home more than 50 percent of its value if your floor is too low.”

Because the new FEMA maps would not be adopted until 2014, the couple’s first floor was not technically too low, and they could remodel as they wished. But Hearn warned against it. “I said, ‘You’re going to have a very difficult time getting flood insurance down the road and selling your home to another family that will need a mortgage and be able to afford flood insurance. That’s going to be very expensive when you’ve put this money way below what is the new base-flood elevation.’ So now they’re in a quandary. They’re not in a position monetarily where they can just knock their house down and build a new house.”

Rebuilding After Hurricane Sandy
A plot at Ortley Beach, N.J., where a house was stripped to its foundation

Dream Versus Reality
Hearn gave the couple three options for their dream remodel, and then she gave a fourth: finishing the lower level with materials that would be inexpensive to replace or clean and adding a third level to the house with decks and stairs leading down to the yard. But that would cost more and squash their original plans. Then Hearn relayed one final option: “I said, ‘Not to upset you more, but you really need to consider knocking it down and building another home there. Then you could be five feet above the ground with your main living level instead of all the way up on a second floor.’ By the time they left, the wife was crying.”

Not only did the couple see their remodeling dream dissolve, but they also battled with home insurance and FEMA-assistance issues. Hearn decided to give back the money for the initial designs and allow them time and space to face the reality that the storm had forced upon them. Shortly after that, another Nor’easter storm flooded the couple’s home a second time.

As reported by the Huffington Post, scientists say that climate change is partly to blame for Hurricane Sandy.  Whether the power of the superstorm was affected by an increase in ocean temperature, a rise in sea levels, full-moon tides, and/or a surge by a nearby Nor’easter, the result changed the landscape. “When the storm left, it changed the ocean floor, and the water is now higher in our local rivers and canals and creeks,” Hearn says.

Stay tuned for the second installment of this story tomorrow, when Hearn discusses the shocking sight of Ortley Beach, the major changes in her design process, and what she’s done to protect her business from future economic downturns.  

rebuilding after hurricane sandy
A damaged home in Mantoloking, N.J.

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