Project Description2005 CHDA
Custom Renovation / Grand Award
If the thought ever entered Michael Walker's mind that this beach-side renovation might be star-crossed, you couldn't really blame him. The Sarasota, Fla., builder shepherded it through two years of permitting, and then an additional two-and-a-half-year building process. While under construction the house survived a hurricane and, in a separate incident, was struck by lightning. But Walker kept his head. “This project was not for the weak and queasy,” he says.
For one thing, the original 1960s house sat nearly 4 feet below federal flood elevation requirements. According to Walker, its non-compliant height legally prohibited the owners from renovating it to more than 50 percent of its assessed value. Because of its location within 20 feet of the Gulf of Mexico's high-water line, state law barred them from altering the existing foundation. And local restrictions dictated that it remain within its original footprint. So the client hired a house mover to detach the building from its foundation and lift it 6½ feet into the air. “Logistically it was hard because of the length of steel required,” Walker says. “The house is 100 feet long.”
But it was the only way to get around all the building codes. With the house elevated on blocks, Walker and his crew got underneath it and built a higher foundation wall atop the existing footings. Then they let the old house back down onto the new, taller foundation walls. Because it now met the height requirements, the owners were free to renovate it however they saw fit. As planned from the beginning of the project, they had Walker raze it, right down to the freshly built foundation.
That was only the beginning. Boston architect Maho Abe designed a new main house for the old footprint as well as a separate guest house. (Local architect Mark Smith served as the liaison between Walker and Abe, handling permitting and construction detailing.) The Asian-influenced architecture, similar in spirit and appearance to the original house, incorporates a large quantity of exposed wood. Cypress forms most of the exteriors and structure; Walker intentionally ordered more than he needed so he could choose the best pieces. The ipé decking resists moisture and insects, and wenge interior woodwork supplies a quiet sophistication.
The carpentry crew's skills were so integral to the project's success that Walker renegotiated their contract three times to get them to stay and finish the job. “It was like building furniture at the beach,” he says. “All the connections are hidden.” Each piece of the intricate exterior latticework, for example, locks itself into the next—no nails are required.
A hurricane hit Sarasota while the existing house was up on blocks, and if it had destroyed the house it would have ended the entire project. “If you lose a building by greater than 50 percent of its value, you aren't permitted to renovate it,” says Walker. Luckily, the building stayed put. An errant bolt of lightning later on wasn't as kind as the hurricane. It hit the main house shortly before completion, escaping the ground conductors and taking down the lighting controls, security system, and phones. After replacing those items, Walker went back and wrapped everything within 5 feet of the ground conductors with rubber.
Despite—or perhaps because of—all its challenges, the home remains a source of pride for Walker. The judges understand why. “It's the ideal house for its region,” said one. “The perfect house to go with sea grass and palm trees.”