To Repair or Rebuild? One Local Architect's Advice

StudioMET spent two years designing a modern, elevated house to replace a flooded Meyerland property. This is what they learned.

By Sarah Rufca Nielsen September 15, 2017

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A 6-foot elevation helped this studioMET-designed house survive Harvey unscathed.

Image: Benjamin Hill

What does the future look like for Meyerland? That's a tricky question, but one possible answer can be found in the AIA Houston Home Tour, which takes place on Oct. 21 and 22. That's when residents from the neighborhood and beyond can take a peek inside a just-completed 3,640-square-foot, two-story home on South Braeswood Drive.

It was designed and built by studioMET for a couple whose home was destroyed in the Memorial Day flood of 2015. The new house was designed to recreate the owners' favorite aspects of their previous home—an open layout and views of Braes Bayou—into a contemporary structure elevated 6 feet off the ground. The owners moved in just this summer—and were relieved that the new house didn't take on water during Harvey. Now architect and partner Stephen Andrews is hoping that some of the lessons learned on the project can help others trying to decide what to do in the wake of Harvey's epic destruction.

"My biggest advice would be don't rush into a decision, which is easier said than done for people who are most likely in temporary housing somewhere until they figure out their situation. The first impulse is usually to repair as fast as we can, to get back into the house," says Andrews. "It's not that tearing down and rebuilding is always the best decision—there's a lot to consider. But it helps to look at your options."

1. How likely is your house to flood again?

One thing some people don't realize, says Andrews, is that each plot inside a flood plain is not created equal. "You might be 3 feet deep or 2 inches deep into the flood plain, and that impacts the likelihood of flooding. If I'm in 100-year flood plain, theoretically that means I have a 1 percent chance of flooding—but that's at the edge of the flood plain. In the middle the odds are much higher," he says.

Owners should also consider the elevation above sea level and an area's recent history of flooding—"Have you flooded multiple times? Or maybe only flooded once but had water inches from your door at others?"—but Andrews acknowledges that for many, including those in Memorial whose homes were flooded by reservoir releases, there's no real way to know to know what the future risk is. On some level, he says, it comes down to your comfort level with risk. "Are you comfortable spending thousands of dollars repairing a home that may flood again?" he asks. "If it rains, will you be able to sleep?"

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One major goal of the homeowners was for the new home to recreate the feel of their previous midcentury property, with an open layout and bayou views.

Image: Benjamin Hill

2. Does your house qualify for renovation?

If your property is in the 100-year floodplain, then remodels/repairs will be subject to FEMA's 50-percent rule. In a nutshell, that means that if the cost of repairs is more than half of the home's value (not including land value), that the city will not grant a building permit without some plan to elevate the house up out of the floodplain. 

For example, a midcentury home in Meyerland may have an appraised value of $400,000—residents can use property valuations from or hire someone to conduct an independent assessment—with a land value of $300,000 and $100,000 in additional value for the improvements, a.k.a. the home's physical structure. In this example, if the cost of removing and replacing drywall, flooring, cabinets, the electrical system, etc. adds up for over $50,000, the city will not allow it to be repaired without it also being raised.

Andrews says that for those who can't imagine tearing down their characterful midcentury home, there are FEMA grants to raise older home up onto piers six or more feet high, but the costs to raise properties this way can climb to $150,000 or more depending on how much work the house already needs—enough to consider whether new construction might be a more practical choice. Don't forget to see what aid options are available at FEMA's website.

3. Can your neighborhood support the value if you rebuild?

Many in Houston are worried that if they sell their flooded properties as-is, they'll only get lot value. But depending on the neighborhood, rebuilding has its own financial pitfalls. "Construction costs in Houston have gone up over the past 5 or 10 years; the median value of new construction is about $150 to $200 per square foot. So a 2,500-square-foot house times $200 per square foot is $500,000. In many neighborhoods in Houston, you'd have a very difficult time selling a $500,000 house," says Andrews.

However, that doesn't have to be a determining factor if you have long ties to the neighborhood and are planning to stay for the foreseeable future. "If you're going to be in this house 15 to 20 years, resale may not be as much of a concern," says Andrews. "If your job is a little more transient, resale becomes a bigger factor."

It's obvious that this math leaves some flooded homeowners damned if they do and damned if they don't—spend too much rebuilding and you might not be able to recapture the value in your home; repair instead and risk losing value because future buyers are skittish of homes that have a history of flooding. 

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Horizontal lines and graduated patio landings ground the house in its surroundings and help to disguise the larger scale.

Image: Benjamin Hill

4. If you rebuild, how high is high enough to elevate?

This is another question without any straightforward answers. We've all heard the stories of owners that raised their houses several feet after being flooded in 2015 or 2016 and still found themselves underwater during Harvey. Houston code requires a property to be at least 12 inches above flood elevation, though rules vary by municipality—Jersey Village, for example, requires homes to be 24 inches above flood elevation. But Andrews recommends everyone considering new construction in any Houston neighborhood strongly consider adding at least some elevation above grade. 

For StudioMET's Braeswood project, the previous home took on 3 feet of water when it flooded, so the architects and owners settled on a nearly 6-foot elevation—high enough to feel confident it would weather future flood events, but not quite so high that it created an aesthetic disruption next to the older, low-slung properties in the neighborhood. 

"The tradeoffs are that the higher you build, the more expensive its going to be, and the more steps you'll have to walk every day into and out of the garage," Andrews says. "At a certain point it feels disconnected from the landscape. Do you want to feel like you're living in a beach house?"

Andrews suggests that any house with a rise above 3 feet consider ways to transition the house to its surroundings architecturally. On the Braeswood project, that meant both front and back decks at the house level, plus a landing at mid-level to ease the transition from house to ground level. They also focused on strong horizontal lines, both in the roof line and with planter boxes across the front façade, which can help disguise the extra height.

5. What unique issues do elevated homes have to consider?

The last thing to consider is any part of the property that will still be at grade—usually a garage. Andrews suggests building them to be flood-resistant by framing with treated wood covered with a resilient material like Hardy siding, or using concrete blocks—just stay away from drywall. Think about wall-mounted shelving for storage and even installing car lifts. 

Andrews says one factor that many owners don't think about when rebuilding higher is privacy—when your floors are 6 feet above the ground, suddenly you can see right over your 8-foot fence into your neighbors' homes, and vice versa. This can be addressed by thinking about the layout—consider a C-shaped or U-shaped floorplan that is inward- rather than outward-focused. Window placement is also important. But the easiest way to add privacy is the maybe the most old-school—planting tall shrubs and trees. 

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