Christine and Jed Laird were home in Mendham with their daughters, Emily, 12, and Ally, 11, when Sandy tore into their circa 1880 summer cottage in Bay Head, a block and a half from the beach. Two days later, after the five feet of water had receded from the living room, they checked out the damage and decided to restore the residence, one of the oldest in the mile-square town.
Apart from adding a powder room and breakfast nook after they bought the cottage in 1979, the couple had always treasured the idea that “as best we know, it was the same as it was in 1880,” says Jed. They also had sentimental reasons to restore. “We have 30 years of memories here. We don’t want to start over.”
Finding a like-minded architect was not easy. “Most everyone suggested we start over,” says Chris. “We interviewed a bunch of architects. If they told us we should rip the house down, we weren’t going to hire them.”
Finally they found Allenwood architect Jack Purvis, president of the New Jersey Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. An expert on restoration, Purvis is also adept at navigating FEMA’s complicated process of revising and reissuing flood maps and the new rules that accompany them.
“One of the real challenges of rebuilding,” says This Old House host O’Connor, “was the changing FEMA regulations.”
After the Lairds’ contractors, Phil Martin and Kevin d’Anunciaçao, gutted the ruined first-floor interior, things began looking up. Literally.
“This is a unique situation,” explains Purvis. “The first floor had fallen apart. The structure was exposed to water multiple times. It had to be raised to restore it, but we weren’t sure how high.”
While waiting for the revised flood maps and regulations, the team decided to do an initial lift of four feet, enough to repair and restore the first floor. “We put an I-beam right through the house, driven from the front window to the back yard,” Purvis says. “This Old House had never seen a house lifted like this before.”
When new flood maps were issued for the Lairds’ area last June, they were relieved to see that their location had been reduced, in FEMA’s complicated rating system, from a V zone (where strong wave velocity is considered likely) to a lower risk A-8 zone, with less stringent building requirements and a required minimum elevation of eight feet above sea level.
The Lairds decided to go slightly beyond the minimum. In early spring, they had the cottage raised an additional six feet, for a total elevation of 10 feet. Their neighbors gathered around to watch. Afterwards, impassioned discussions ensued about the interminable process all Sandy-affected homeowners are trudging through. There are mountains of paperwork to file, dozens of websites to research, various grants to apply for and scores of calls to make to town personnel, insurance agents and experts of all kinds.
“Our biggest challenge is the feeling that this is all out of our control,” says Chris. “It’s been tough navigating FEMA and insurance. As much as I hate the fact that it’s still not done, we’ve learned it’s important to take your time.”
“This is the future,” says Purvis. “This is what the Shore is going to look like. All new construction from this point forward will be required to be at these raised elevations.”
“We admire the Lairds’ commitment to restoring,” says This Old House senior series producer Deborah Hood. “They may have chosen a path that is more time-consuming and more costly, but as old-house people ourselves, we certainly understand that decision, and Bay Head will be all the better for it.”