Rebuilding After Hurricane Sandy: How One Small Architecture Firm Rose to the Challenge [Part 2]

by Kylee Swenson
- Mar 14 2013 - 5 min read
photo of Hurricane Sandy damage at Ortley Beach by architect Mary Hearn

This article is the second in a two-part series about Mary Hearn, owner of a small architecture firm in Belmar, New Jersey that is working on Hurricane Sandy recovery projects. In part one, Hearn discusses one couple’s reconstruction dilemma and reveals why architects also need to act as therapists.

Belmar, N.J. is a somewhat affluent community. Many homeowners there won’t receive financial assistance from FEMA—which doesn’t provide relief for second homes—and will see little money from their insurance companies. “Have I gone back and reread my policy since [Hurricane Sandy]? Yes,” Hearn says. “But that is what it takes for us to read our policy. So you get what you pay for.”

However, there are homeowners in other communities who are worse off. “Not far from here, in Union Beach and Ortley Beach, there are people who cannot even fathom rebuilding their homes,” Hearn says. “It will cost $60,000 to lift a house, if it’s lift-able. If you have a masonry house, a brick house, you cannot lift it. If the houses were damaged structurally, they can’t be lifted.” Even if those houses can be lifted, Hearn says there are only a handful of licensed house lifters in the state.

Building Stronger and Better
Hearn visited Ortley Beach at the beginning of January, when only residents and authorized personnel were allowed. Once past the state troopers stationed on every block, she was shocked by what she saw. “What’s left are these little cottages, slammed into the side of these brand-new, three-story, million-dollar homes,” Hearn laments. “It’s like Monopoly houses were thrown around into each other, and it’s real property. It’s people’s lives.”

As she got closer to one of her clients’ properties, she discovered that the streets and properties were nothing but sand. “Had I been able to drive to their old street, there’s no houses, so there are no addresses,” Hearn says. “You can’t tell one property from another. It’s chaotic.”

rebuilding after hurricane sandy
Wiped-out properties at Ortley Beach, N.J. Photo by Mary Hearn.

Her clients’ house was originally built on pilings—30-foot telephone poles rammed into the ground—with a steel-enforced, concrete grade beam capped on top over the entire footprint of the house. “That grade beam is four feet in the air now,” Hearn says. “The sand washed out four feet under their house!”

The couple wants to build a new house that could weather another massive hurricane, but Hearn is not confident she can deliver. “I can’t guarantee I can design a house that can withstand that ocean again,” she says. “I work with very good structural engineers; we could design skyscrapers with them. But I don’t know if we can build something that can withstand that force.”

Read more about recovery at Ortley Beach in this New York Times article.

Major Workflow Changes
Since the superstorm hit, the design process has changed for Hearn. Case in point: She worked with the owner of a bed and breakfast in Belmar whose entire basement flooded—frying furnaces, water heaters, and electric panels.

Many of Hearn’s clients are now bringing their mechanicals to the first floor and adding rooms to make up for lost space. But they’re doing it in two phases, so they can return to their homes as quickly as possible.

rebuilding after hurricane sandy
A profoundly damaged house in Mantoloking, N.J. Photo by Mary Hearn.

“They wanted their kids close to their schools and friends, and it takes some time to get through the board of adjustments and for variances for approval,” Hearn says. “So people were replacing their boilers, furnaces, and water heaters back in their basement temporarily until we could get a room built on an upper level for those things. Those were things we never thought of before.”

Another alteration in Hearn’s design process: stronger foundations and more breakaway panels. “Zone A means you’re going to get a flood,” Hearn says. “V means you’re going to get wave action. A lot of zones that were not wave-action zones before have been upgraded to V zones, and then we have to design the foundations differently. There are actually breakaway walls, so the walls will break away, but the pilings will keep the house up, and then there won’t be damage to the house above. I’ve maybe done three of them in my career, and in the next year, we’re probably going to be working on 20 of them.”

rebuilding after hurricane sandy
Houses slammed together at Ortley Beach. Photo by Mary Hearn.

The Economic Tides
Back in 2008, the economy forced Hearn to downsize her firm from eight people to four. But although she’s inundated with work again, she’s not eager to build up her payroll. “Back then, I didn’t get my finger on every job,” she says. “And that bothered me. I think some people are cut out to manage a lot of people, have faith in those people, and not have to look at every part of every job, and I’m not one of those people.” [Laughs.]

To help with the influx of extra projects and make it easier for her to adjust to fluctuating workloads, Hearn hired consultants who work for her remotely as full-time as contractors. In 2007, when work was scarce, she took on occasional commercial work and small jobs. “Now, I don’t turn my nose up at the small jobs,” she says. “I like being as diversified as we can.”

Hearn is thankful to be busy, but what she really loves about her job is when her clients—many of whom have become good friends with Hearn—are pleasantly surprised at the end of a project. “I love standing there in somebody’s home after we’ve renovated it or built it from scratch and they say, ‘I actually didn’t know what it was going to look like, but I love it. I can’t believe I lived with my house that long the way it was.’”

rebuilding after hurricane sandy
Hearn’s Mantoloking-based clients are rebuilding their garage after the foundation buckled during the storm. Photo by Mary Hearn.

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