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Making a modern beach house in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

A couple works to build a house that can weather the next superstorm

This Long Beach Island, New Jersey, home was about to be built when Hurricane Sandy hit. “The old house had just been razed 10 days before the storm,” says owner Stephanie Carpenter. “It was a terrible event, but our area was incredibly lucky and, for the most part, the sand dunes did their job by sheltering this block.”

"It was chaos after the storm," says architect Scott Specht of Specht Architects. "In the wake of it, FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] changed the rules, and new homes needed to sit higher off the ground. The house we designed no longer worked, and we had to start from scratch."

A detail of the home’s foundation shows the house sitting on poles high off the ground. The lowest siding panels are laid vertically and are designed to break away in high wind and waves.
Its waterfront location means the home sits high on pillars. The vertical panels (left) are designed to break away in the event of a hurricane.

The hurricane set the project back by 20 months, but according to the owners (Stephanie, her husband Craig, and their three children), it's a story with a silver lining. "It changed many things about the house—and it turned out for the best," says Stephanie.

The big change was to the height of the house: They had planned on a three-story home. New regulations required the structure to sit higher off the ground, but local regulations prohibited them from raising the height of the roof—so it went from three stories to two. Of course, that made for a more compact space.

An exterior staircase is done in wood and metal; three of the family’s kids are loaded up with beach gear and headed for the water down a sandy path; the owner of the house stands on the fiberglass roof and looks at the waves.
Clockwise from top left: A simple entry made of rugged materials makes an easy path between the beach and the home’s interior; the family heads to the water; the rooftop deck is done in fiberglass, like a boat deck—and it’s Craig’s favorite spot.

In addition to the new requirements, there was also a heightened awareness of the kind of damage a superstorm can do. "We rethought the whole process, and we opted for more extreme safety measures," says Specht. "We built it like a boat designed to weather a storm. The roof deck is made of fiberglass, like the hull of a boat. We upgraded the windows and doors, choosing even stronger options and stainless steel trim. We also switched to cedar siding, which is durable and long lasting. This is a very resilient house."

The clients have no regrets. "Some of the spaces are smaller, and we have fewer bathrooms, but in the end we have a better house for us," says Stephanie.

One thing that didn't change was the modern aesthetic. When Stephanie was in college, her parents built a contemporary home in the Midwest. "I fell in love with Modernism then, and I think that set me on this architectural path," she says. "My husband feels the same way, so there was no question in our mind what kind of home we wanted."

The master bedroom has a balcony with a view of the sand and the waves.
The master bedroom has its own outlook on the water. The Notturno bed is by Flou; The Berenice wall light is from YLighting; a TG-10 dining chair and the Kieran Stump side table are from BDDW.

So, although the weathered cedar is a classic choice in this beachside setting, the stark lines are something that's a bit new to the neighborhood. "It's more modern than the neighboring houses, but I like that juxtaposition," says Specht. "It's a house that runs counter to the nearby homes, yet it completely fits."

Not only does it fit the site, it fits the family. "We are all in love with this home, it's a sanctuary for us," says Stephanie, who grew up visiting the Jersey Shore. Noting that their beach lives are very different from their New York City existences, she says: "It's really nice to be in a setting where if the kids want to walk out the front door, they don't have to ask."

Looking up through the winding stairwell, you see a cluster of light fixtures; the owners stand on a balcony while the kids play in the sand.
An Arc dome pendant and globe set from Allied Maker top the stairwell; the home’s connection with the beach is immediate, and the family takes advantage of it.

The architect says that trial and error led to the family's perfect match. "We got to the right house by designing the wrong house," Specht says. "Our first design was more precious, and made a statement with a grand entry. In reality, this is a house with lots of kids and lots of activity. They didn't need a fancy glass entry, they needed a durable space where people could come in and out from the beach in wet and sandy swim clothes."

That beach lifestyle drove the entire layout. "Many homes on Long Beach Island are built in 'reverse living,' with the bedrooms on the lower levels and the common areas on the upper levels,” says Stephanie. “That arrangement didn't feel comfortable to us, so we chose a more traditional floor plan with the living space below the bedrooms—we get to wake up with the sunrise."

An open living room, dining room, and kitchen with a navy sofa, rectangular dining table surrounded by gray chairs, white countertops, and sculptural pendant lighting featuring pearlescent spheres.
In the living room, a Hepburn sofa from Minotti is flanked by a Cage side table and a Drought side table. The Equalizer light fixture from Ladies and Gentlemen Studio over the dining room table makes a statement. A ombre wallpaper is Aurora Ray from Calico.
Ball & Albanese

The architect notes that while he sees the merits of both styles, for this family it was the correct choice. "Given how often they are in and out of the house during their stays, it would be awkward for them to have to go up two floors to the kitchen."

No matter what the level, the rooms are designed to focus on the dunes, waves, and sky. Decks on each floor are a visceral connection to nature, and clerestory windows on the sides frame views of the skies. "When homes sit this tightly together, it's a bit of a design challenge," says Specht. "We solved it in a classic way, making the east and west sides as open as possible and giving the north and south sides clerestory windows that let in light and views while providing privacy."

The staircase is fronted by tall windows looking out on the beach. Much of the furniture has a sculptural quality.
A view from the balcony looks over the sand and waves.
Clockwise from top left: The Shell chair is by Marco Sousa Santos, the dog sculpture is by Jim Budish, the painting is by Maggie Simonelli, the Soft Stone pouf is from Viva Terra; a Pelican chair by Finn Juhl and a Screw table by Pat Kim sit on an Oasis rug from Tibetano; Stephanie says that the original design included a swimming pool. When the storm altered their plans, it was deleted. “We realized we didn’t need it, we are beach people,” she says.

The rooms themselves are designed with spots for gathering, privacy, and sometimes both at once. The architect notes that bedrooms are small, but each of the three children has their own. The open-plan living room, dining room, and kitchen bring everyone together.

"The area under the stairs started with the chair and the bronze dog, and grew from there. It became the spot were we all go when we want to be close to the action, but a little bit separate—alone but together,” says Stephanie. “It’s for resting, reading, or doing the crossword."

Given how much time the family spends here, there's ample opportunity for family time; this is no summer retreat that's shuttered when school starts in the fall. "We use the house year-round for free weekends, holidays, and school vacations,” says Stephanie. “This is a place where we can really relax no matter what the season."

Contractor: Rolf Demmerle, Demmerle Builders