More than a decade ago, as senior editor of this magazine, I visited the barrier islands of North Carolina to write about a vacation home. The house was located on the water not far from Wrightsville Beach, an area known for its vulnerability to Atlantic hurricanes. Cape Fear is close by, too, part of a zone called “The Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
I traveled around for several days with a custom builder who explained how they built houses in the region to withstand surging water and damaging winds. There, they prepare for when—not if—they will receive a direct hit from a hurricane.
The lessons learned on that assignment resonated with me recently as Sandy barreled up the eastern seaboard. I had learned similar lessons from my parents, who often spoke of our family’s experience riding out Hurricane Hattie in Belize City. When Hattie reached landfall just south of the city on Oct. 31, 1961, she was a “strong” category 4, newly weakened from a category 5. Ultimately more than 300 people along her four-day path perished, and most of the capital of what was then British Honduras was destroyed. My mother and her two young toddlers were evacuated in the aftermath, while my father remained to man the American consulate.
Like Wrightsville Beach, Belize knew hurricanes. And its indigenous architecture was largely built on stilts above the surge line of most storms, although Hattie got the best of it. In coastal North Carolina, weather-weary homeowners build their houses with “break-away” first floors—containing garage and guest areas—and move critical rooms to the second and third floors.
It appears “100-year” storms like Sandy are cycling through every few years now. Severe snow storms, hurricanes, heat waves, and even earthquakes are becoming commonplace occurrences, heaped atop existing hardships various regions already endure.
These new challenges should capture the attention of custom builders and residential architects because we need to rethink the way we design, engineer, and construct our houses. In addition to our new zest for sustainability, we must consider the resilience of our buildings as well. It’s an opportunity and an obligation for anyone who builds anew in this evolving climatological reality. We don’t want to make it right later; we want to build it right the first time.