Beachtown shrugs off Hurricane Ike

Traditional neighborhood development benefits from designers’ experience after Katrina and Rita.

After Hurricane Katrina, questions were raised as to whether houses immediately on the Gulf of Mexico coast could be built to withstand a major hurricane. And, if they could, designers wondered whether they could incorporate decent urbanism. Some architectural drawings of houses way up on stilts, at the Mississippi Renewal Forum in Biloxi in 2005, seemed to suggest the futility of such endeavors.
Three years later a new urban community rising in Galveston, Texas, has tested these issues. Beachtown, planned by Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company and employing architects who participated in the Mississippi Renewal Forum, withstood a bull’s-eye hit from the winds and nearly 20-foot storm surge of Hurricane Ike in early September. By all accounts, the engineering performed brilliantly and the living spaces survived with barely any damage — while neighborhoods not far away suffered near-total destruction.
Only about 20 houses are occupied or under construction in Beachtown, so the quality of the urbanism has yet to be fully proven. However, developer Tofigh Shirazi and the architects are using ideas that enhance the human scale of buildings that are raised and fortified to survive a massive flood.
Beachtown has been the subject of positive local news coverage, with reporters using words like “amazing” and “a contrast to all of the devastation.” Over shots of destroyed neighborhoods and the strikingly different intact buildings at Beachtown, TV reporter Deborah Wrigley intoned: “On the Bolivar Peninsula the devastation is near complete ... . Yet across the channel on the eastern point of Galveston Island is a stunning example of engineering against disaster. There’s the old saying, they don’t build ‘em like they used to. Here [at Beachtown], homes are built better … .”

fortified construction
After Katrina and Rita, Shirazi mandated fortified construction standards that exceed building code requirements. Steel beams and concrete floors are used, along with windows designed to withstand 150 mph winds. The first floors are mostly used for garage space and storage. The houses are essentially on stilts, with panels designed to break away to allow a storm surge to pass through. Living areas are raised 14-16 feet in some cases, which puts them more than 20 feet above sea level. Architects Steve Mouzon, Eric Moser, Eric Brown, and Michael Imber — all of whom did work on the Gulf Coast after Katrina — have attempted to create Greek Revival, Victorian, and vernacular style houses under these conditions.
Brandan Moss of Michael G. Imber Architects says Beachtown houses pose many challenges: the first-floor space must meet storage, garage, access, and entry purposes, satisfy structural requirements, look good and fit into the local vernacular, and be cost-effective to build. First-floor walls consist of a series of columns, classical or vernacular in design, with breakaway panels in between.
Because nobody lives on the first floor, attention is paid to making the door more prominent and inviting (it leads to an entry hall of about 250 square feet and stairs to the main living area). A porch or stoop enhances the entry. In some cases, the first floor includes windows, Moss says.
“Creating the interaction between the street and the homes is tricky when houses are elevated,” says Chad Murphy, vice president and development manager with Beachtown Galveston Corp. “So it’s all the more important to bring in the best and the brightest architects.”
Construction has started on a mixed-use town center, which presents even greater challenges. The town center occupies higher ground, but the main commercial floors must still be elevated a half-story above the street, Murphy says. Restaurants and shops will put functions on the lower level that may include the serving of ice cream or drinks, he says; primary service and sales areas will be above. Outdoor dining will enhance the street vitality. The first commercial building is under construction. Leasing has not begun.
The fortifications have raised construction costs, but not prohibitively, Murphy says. The peace of mind provided to homeowners, he says, is well worth the price. “All of that hard work and design has paid off. We are extremely happy. We can say with full confidence that our community can withstand a direct eyewall hit.”
Murphy says Beachtown is weathering the financial storm as well. Sales have slowed but not entirely stopped, he says. They’ve been aided by the strength of the Houston area economy due to high energy-sector profits. Another helpful factor, he says, is that Galveston’s house prices had not risen as high as those in many other coastal communities, and have been relatively stable since the start of the housing recession.

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