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  • Writer's pictureMaria Luisa Castellanos

How do I plan a house near the ocean? What are the issues?

Updated: Mar 28, 2023

Walkway through the sand to the beach
Photo by Joshua Patterson from Unsplash

Here in Miami, we build very differently from the rest of the country. We are susceptible to forces that other areas of the country do not have – mainly hurricanes. Because of this, we have a tradition of building which is very different from building in North Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, or even the northern states. Most of the United States builds in wood, we build in concrete and concrete block. Coastal areas of the south, particularly, Louisiana, Texas, Georgia, northern Florida, and Mississippi, who get hit with hurricanes regularly, should learn from us and build like we do. The structures would be much stronger.

As the principal of one of the top architecture firms in Miami, I can say that another important issue is the elevation of the main floor of the house. We are finding out that FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Act) is slowly raising the floor elevation at which a house must be built to avoid flooding. If we just watch what happens in the Brickell area of Miami when we get a bad rainstorm, not even a hurricane, we see why we must raise new houses to a higher elevation. This area floods after each bad rainstorm. This issue will be particularly important in the future with low-lying areas such as Palmetto Bay and Cutler Bay. As time passes, flooding will get worse, and we could have encroachment of the ocean when there is a hurricane. In fact, during the last hurricane, parts of Coconut Grove were under several feet of water and houses were inundated.

Buying a house in a flood zone, has many limitations.I had a client at one point who bought a house right on the water on Hibiscus Island, an island of Miami Beach.It had beautiful views from the rear of the house around the pool area. When we looked west, we saw the city, but when we looked east, we saw Miami Beach.The views were truly amazing. So, what’s the problem?The house was barely a few feet about the water and FEMA required the base flood elevation of the main floor of the house to be many, many feet above its present level. We had to go through additional steps to design the project. You can read more about dealing with this issue here.

Building a house in a flood zone has issues, but not as many limitations as buying one. The main problem is that the house must be raised many feet above the natural contours of the property. This happens often in areas of Coral Gables, such as Cocoplum. FEMA does not allow construction for habitation below the base flood elevation. Unfortunately, many owners, once they build the house, are tempted to build out these areas and occupy them. This is generally not a problem unless they are caught by the building department or the areas flood during a hurricane. When these rooms and the furniture in them are ruined because of water intrusion, FEMA will not pay for any of this under the flood policy. And during the sale of a house with these improvements, the owner is obligated to disclose that these areas were remodeled illegally.

Building a house near the ocean may also present another problem – the need for special deep footings, as often the soil conditions are poor with little bearing capacity. This raises the cost of the house. Driving piles into the soil or pouring concrete piles and grade beams can add some cost to a project.

In today’s climate conditions, I recommend to all my clients to use impact windows and doors. The winds next to the ocean, especially during a hurricane, can be very substantial. I remember during Hurricane Andrew, the number of houses that I saw in South Dade with all the windows and door missing. I prefer the use of impact windows and doors rather than shutters because the installation of shutters at the last minute, when a hurricane is coming can be problematic for some people who cannot install them themselves and must rely on others to do the work. And in high-end houses, this is expected at the time of the sale of the house.

Metals near the ocean can be affected by salt water and breezes. The standard metal for roofing drips and roof flashing is galvanized steel. This is not recommended near the ocean. Normally, near the ocean, aluminum must be used.

Miami has a building culture which uses concrete block and concrete for the walls, but them for the roof it uses wood trusses for the structure. I think this is a big mistake, particularly, when the house is near the ocean. Wood is the weak link. When wood is attached to the tie-beam is must use a connector, usually in metal. The wood is normally strapped with metal straps. And even though this can be done well, there is no comparison to building a concrete block wall with a poured-in-place roof with steel reinforcing. This is due to the nature of concrete. When concrete is poured, it is a liquid. Yet, when it dries, it is a solid. And when the roof and tie-beam and tie-downs or tie-columns are poured all at the same time, imagine how solid the resulting structure is. It's almost indestructible!

So here, we hope that you have learned a few things that will help you in building a house near the ocean. If we can help plan your new house, call me Maria Luisa Castellanos, R.A., at 305-439-7898.


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