Residential architects who specialize in the hot, humid, southern climate

What is the 50% Rule?

 Photo by Stocktrek Images/Stocktrek Images / Getty Images

Photo by Stocktrek Images/Stocktrek Images / Getty Images

Thoughts of hurricanes are starting early this year with the potential tropical storm forming off of our coast. In the past, I have written about protecting your existing house and best practices for new construction (March 2013 and December 2011, respectively). The area with some confusion are the rules for repairing and/or improving your existing house which I will address today.

Beaufort County and the municipalities within the county all participate in the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) that is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA establishes a base flood elevation above mean sea level which is revised periodically. Buildings must meet the NFIP requirements which include having the first floor above the base flood elevation or higher depending on the flood zone, along with other requirements.

If the cost of improvements or the cost to repair a damaged building exceed 50% of the market value of the building, the entire building must be brought into compliance with the NFIP requirements. The market value is for the building only, not the property, any landscape improvements, or detached accessory buildings. The value can be determined by a licensed appraiser or the county’s property assessment.

The only items that are excluded from the cost of improvements or repair are as follows:

  •  Plans and specifications  
  • Surveys  
  • Permit fees  
  • Cost to demolish storm damaged buildings
  • Debris removal
  • Landscape improvements
  • Detached structures. If the detached structure is habitable space it is subject to the same rules when renovated or repaired.

Many existing houses in the county do not meet the NFIP requirements and must adhere to the 50% rule. Most houses built in accordance with the 2009 or 2012 edition of the International Residential Code (IRC) meet the NFIP requirements and are not subject to the 50% rule.

Municipalities often adopt a cumulative substantial improvement policy which combines any combination of repairs, reconstruction, rehabilitation, additions, or other improvements to a structure during a finite period of time that is limited to the 50% value. The cumulative substantial improvement policy for Beaufort County and Bluffton is 10 years; the City of Beaufort is 5 years; and Hilton Head currently does not have a cumulative substantial improvement policy.

When purchasing an existing house it is prudent to do the homework to determine if the house is built above the flood plain. A local surveyor can provide a flood elevation certificate that shows the flood zone, the required first floor elevation, and the actual first floor elevation. That fixer upper might seem like a good deal until you realize the cost of raising the first floor and meeting the NFIP requirements.


We just returned from a fascinating people to people visit to Cuba with the American Institute of Architects and the Copperbridge Foundation. We spent a week meeting architects, touring buildings, and being entertained by local musician and dancers. The phrase that our guide repeatedly used was “It’s complicated.” Everything seemed to be complicated from acquiring buildings to renovating them. We were told that there were no private architectural firms but we met some architects who had firms… but they couldn’t call themselves architects – it’s complicated. 

“Havana is an archive of every interesting style of Western architecture, especially those between 1860 and 1960,” says Cuban-American architect Hermes Mallea.  The colonial and neo-classical architecture is beautifully executed. It feels like a cross between New Orleans and Charleston with the loggias, balconies, interior courtyards, and exquisite iron work. Once dubbed Paris of the Caribbean, old Havana is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was established in 1519. The Cuban state has recently invested in the restoration of the central city through the Office of the Historian of the City. While some buildings are being restored, the vast majority are desperately in need of repair. We were told that throughout Havana 2 ½ buildings collapse every day from deterioration.

We stayed at the Hotel Nacional that was designed in 1930 by the New York firm McKim, Mead, and White. The hotel’s loggias and gardens overlook the Havana Harbor and beg you to sit down and enjoy a mojito and the view. There we were treated to a performance by musicians formerly of the Buena Vista Social Club.

Paladars are private restaurants located in homes. One of my favorites was La Guarida where the movie Strawberry & Chocolate was filmed. The building is being renovated from the top down with a new roof top terrace with great views of Havana. The decaying first two floors make you question if this is in fact a restaurant. After negotiating broken treads and a wobbly handrail on the marble staircase you enter a hauntingly beautiful gallery space. The food was also very good.

Outside of Old Havana there is a treasure trove of Art Deco and Mid-century Modern buildings built between the early twenties and 1959. One gem was the 1938 house of graphic artist Enrique Garcia Cabrera designed by the Cuban architect Maximiliano Borges. Sculptural panels by the artist grace the front façade of the house.

 Another highlight was the house designed by the California architect, Richard Neutra for the Swiss banker Alfred de Schulthess. The family only lived in the house from 1956-1960 when Castro nationalized private residences. It is now the residence of the Swiss ambassador, Anna- Pascale Kraver Muller. The gardens are by the Brazilian landscape architect Burle Marx who is described as a painter working in landscape.

The most recent buildings we saw were built in the early years after the revolution with a post revolution Cuban aesthetic. The Instituto Superior de Arte was designed by Richardo Porro and is a series of domed buildings. The campus was never finished and was recently highlighted in the award winning film Unfinished Spaces.

To see Cuba before it is modernized, now is the time to go. There are many groups offering tours, including the Copperbridge Foundation, National Geographic and Roads Tours.

Park Design

Savannah Square

10 Parks That Changed America, A new documentary will air on PBS starting April 12th. The parks were chosen by a panel of experts and according to Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, executive vice president and CEO, American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) “The parks were all created to solve complex environmental, social, or economic problems.” Somerville commented on the Squares of Savannah, “Savannah’s squares were created with the belief that everyone should have access to a park. Today, we see the same ideas underlying the environmental justice movement and the quest for clean air and clean water for everyone.”

Beaufort Waterfront Park

The City of Beaufort’s Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park is at the top of the list of parks that have changed Beaufort County. The seven acre park became a focal point for downtown Beaufort when it replaced dilapidated docks in 1979. Beaufort County has conserved over 12,000 acres of land and is in the process of determining what kind of parks we want with the help of The Beaufort County Open Land Trust. As the county moves forward in planning the future parks that can change Beaufort County, we should consider The Trust for Public Land seven measures of an excellent park system.

1.        A clear expression of purpose – The citizenry must clearly set forth in writing the purpose of the park system and a mandate for the park department.

2.       Ongoing planning and community involvement – The park system needs a master plan that include an inventory of natural, recreational, historical and cultural resources, a needs analysis, analysis of connectivity and gaps, an implementation strategy, a budget and an annual evaluation of the plan.

3.       Sufficient assets in land, staffing, and equipment to meet the system’s goals – Excellent park departments not only receive adequate funding, but also spend their money wisely and commit themselves to effective stewardship.

4.       Equitable access – The excellent park system is accessible to everyone regardless of residence, physical abilities, or financial resources. Parks should be easily reachable form every neighborhood, usable by the handicapped and challenged, and available to low-income residents.

5.       User satisfaction –Having high use is the ultimate validation that it is attractive and that it meets people’s needs.

6.       Safety from physical hazards and crime – To be successful, a park system should be safe, free both of crime and of unreasonable physical hazards, from sidewalk potholes to rotten branches overhead.

7.       Benefits for the city beyond the boundaries of the parks – The park system is a form of natural infrastructure that provides many good including; cleaner air, cleaner water, reduced health costs from sedentary syndromes, increased tourism and increased business vitality.

For more information on parks visit the American Society of Landscape Architects and The Trust for Public Land

Under Construction

We have quite a few projects under construction at the moment. Here are some recent photos of the progress.

Long Cove Club Residence

The project in Long Cove Club is a little over halfway completed. The neighbors all comment on how nicely the house fits between the trees.

A great view of Broad Creek from the living room.

 There will be a floating stair in this dramatic stairhall

There will be a floating stair in this dramatic stairhall

Lady's Island Residence

The framing on the house on Lady's Island is coming along nicely! 

 Another great view

Another great view

Palmetto Bluff Residence

 The big sliding doors open the house up to the view.

The big sliding doors open the house up to the view.

  Nice view to wake up to!

 Nice view to wake up to!

 Great View from the office. I might not get any work done!

Great View from the office. I might not get any work done!

Berkeley Hall Residence

We had a visitor at the construction site!

Construction Costs

Many people who are contemplating building a new home are surprised at the cost of construction. The sticker shock is often due to the expectation of the same costs that were available during the recession. Our firm’s historical data of residential construction show that the average new home construction costs are still 38% less expensive than the few years before the great recession. So now is a good time to consider renovating or building a new house, while costs are greater than 2010 they are still less than 2007.

Construction costs are higher in Beaufort County because we are in both a hurricane zone and an earthquake zone. The requirements to mitigate both of these hazards include the following:

  • Building the first floor above FEMA’s base flood elevation which adds to the foundation cost.
  • Structural Engineering fees to design code compliant structural systems.
  •  Connecting the roof, through the walls to the foundation and footing with threaded rods, go-bolts, hurricane clips or other code approved methods. This adds to both the material and labor costs.
  • The shear walls required for lateral stability are more expensive than sheathing options available in other parts of the country.
  • Window and door openings must be protected from windblown debris. Impact rated windows can cost up to twice as much as non-impact openings.

There are several best practice options that will cost more initially but will either save money on your home insurance or utility bill that we recommend.

  • A secondary roof under a metal roof that ensure water tightness if the roof is compromised during high winds.
  • An U.L. certified lightning protection system will add $7,000 to $10,000 to a 2500 s.f. house but will protect your house and electronics from lightning strikes during our many lightning storms.
  • Spray foam insulation is typically 2 to 3 times more expensive than fiberglass insulation but is a far superior product. It stops air and moisture infiltration, will not sag, keeps dust and pollen out and reduces capacity requirements, maintenance and wear of heating and air conditioning equipment.

TV remodeling shows also add to unrealistic time and cost expectations. Those shows often have donated materials, low cost fees from the contractors and have pre-built a large portion in a warehouse prior to the show.  

Cost, square footage (both inside and outside) and quality of materials and workmanship are the triad of construction. If cost is the driving issue in your project you must be flexible in the size of the project and the quality of materials and workmanship.

Winter proof your house

Brrrr…winter arrived this week and it seems even colder after the balmy Christmas and New Year.  It is not too late to prepare your house for cold weather to keep warm and save energy. The most important thing is to keep the cold air out. A home energy audit is the best way to discover where your house is leaking. Typical leaky locations are electrical outlets, switch plates, door and window frames, attic hatches, dryer vents and plumbing, electrical, and cable connections in the exterior walls and floors. These leaks can be filled with caulk and/or insulation and the doors should be weather-stripped.

Your heating system should be maintained and the filters changed monthly for it to run at maximum efficiency. By turning the thermostat back 10 to 15% when you are away or out of the house you can save 10% on your energy bill according to the US Department of Energy. Only do this if you have a furnace. If you have a heat pump you should only set the thermostat back a few degrees. When a heat pump needs to heat a room quickly it uses the auxiliary electric strips which is very inefficient.

Curtains with insulated liners will help block drafts from leaky windows, especially in the historic homes with single pane glass. Be sure to open the curtains on south facing windows during the day to take advantage of the sun to warm the room.

There are several easy items to help keep you warmer. Reverse your ceiling fans to run clockwise to push the heat that has risen to the ceiling back down to the floor. This is particularly useful for rooms with high ceilings. Close the fireplace damper whenever there is not a fire burning. Glass doors on fireplaces help prevent the warm air in the room from going up the chimney. Move furniture away from the heating vents so the warm air is not trapped under or behind the furniture.  Finally as your dad always told you, “If you are cold, put on a sweater”.

Under Construction

We have several projects in beginning stages of construction. 

Here is the first in a series of videos that will will be publishing to show the construction process of a home on Dataw Island. We are excited to get some overhead shots of the site with Benjie's new drone! 

Framing has begun at our project in Berkeley Hall. December is a beautiful time for construction in South Carolina!

Our project in Love Cove Club is coming along nicely. Currently, the contractors are working on the roofing and masonry. 

We look forward to seeing these projects completed, stay tuned for more updates!

Color of the Year

You might have missed the biggest news this week. The color gurus, The Pantone Color Institute in New Jersey for the first time has chosen two colors for the color of the year for 2016!  If that is not controversial enough, wait until you see the colors, Serenity and Rose Quartz. Also known as baby blue and baby pink.

According to Pantone, 2016's combination is "a harmonious pairing of inviting shades that embody a mind-set of tranquility and inner peace. As consumers seek mindfulness and well-being as an antidote to the stress of modern day lives, welcoming colors that psychologically fulfil the yearning for reassurance and security are becoming more prominent. Weightless and airy, like the expanse of the blue sky above us, Serenity comforts with a calming effect, bringing feelings of respite and relaxation even in turbulent times. Rose Quartz is a persuasive yet gentle tone that conveys compassion and a sense of composure."

This all seems very silly until you realize it influences products from “Rose Quartz” KitchenAid mixers to available plants at the gardening center. Katie Rotella, Public Relations Manager at Ball Horticultural Company, recommends “Forming a retail display around Pantone Colors of the Year to build excitement and educate the gardener on the latest trends in fashion, flowers, and home décor.”  Cosmetics and fashion seem to follow the color trends the closest. Sephora is trying to convince us that we will all look good in their new Serenity blue lipstick.  

Some decades are known for their color trends. My 1960’s childhood home had fashionable turquoise appliances that looked so dated in the seventies when avocado and goldenrod were all the rage.  Which is a good lesson in what products should have trendy color and what is going to look dated in just a few years. So when you see me with blue lips, I am not cold  - just au courant.

Lebanese Details

There were all sorts of interesting details to discover in Lebanon. From macrame sunscreens to ancient paving in the souk. Here are some of my favorites.

This macrame sun screen was at an outdoor restaurant overlooking the sea.

Reed Sunscreen in the Byblos Souk