Standing Tall: A Home Defies Sandy

After a devastating blow from Superstorm Sandy, a Bay Head family rebuilds—stronger, safer and smarter.

Tom and Vera Jones's rebuilt ocean home sits atop a reinforced dune at the FEMA-required 17 feet above sea level.
Tom and Vera Jones's rebuilt ocean home sits atop a reinforced dune at the FEMA-required 17 feet above sea level. A porch on each level provides ocean views. The flags on the lower porch as a nod to the grandkids' colleges.
Photo by Laura Moss

Long before Vera and Tom Jones purchased their waterfront home on East Avenue in Bay Head, it was something of a landmark among locals. Set far back from the street and close to the ocean’s edge, the house was the place where Bay Head lifeguards stashed their surfboards and safety equipment after hours. A lifeguard stand was positioned directly behind the house. When thunderstorms hit, the lifeguards found protection on the Joneses’ porch. And when nature called, the lifeguards were welcome to use the bathroom.

Over the years, the lifeguards learned the name of every Jones child and grandchild. “It’s nice to have the lifeguards right there,” says Vera, “watching over the kids.”

The Joneses bought the home in 1975, becoming the second owners of what was then a 60-year-old house. For Tom, who had served in the Navy, it was a dream come true. “We were delighted to be on the ocean side,” says Vera. “Tom’s greatest joy was to be able to look out and see the water.”

When the Joneses both retired in December 1986, they sold their Princeton home and made Bay Head their full-time residence. Their three grown children and eight grandchildren were thrilled to spend long summer weekends there, too.

Then came Superstorm Sandy. “This house had withstood many storms,” says Vera. But Sandy was too much. “One enormous wave came through with enough force to blow out the front door.”

The Joneses spent the next 19 months planning their return. “I never once thought we wouldn’t come back to Bay Head,” says Vera. They briefly considered restoring the shattered house, but given the expected cost—in the hundreds of thousands of dollars—it didn’t seem prudent.

“We decided within a couple of days of Sandy that we were going to build a new house, a safer house,” says daughter Debra McCurry, who lives with her family in Maryland but relishes trips to the Jersey Shore. Since local architects were overwhelmed with demand post-Sandy, the Joneses hired Maryland-based architect Don Taylor, a family friend.

Within 10 days, they sat down with the architect to come up with new house plans. Vera’s priorities were simple: “I wanted a bedroom on the first floor and an open-floor plan,” she says. Beyond that, the key was making the new home strong and smart.

The Joneses hired local builder Andy Brown to lead the project. Brown, who was semi-retired, jumped at the chance to make a difference post-Sandy. He was eager to advocate for safer, stronger construction, and to test such innovations as geothermal pilings—an emerging technology that could be used to drive the home’s heating and cooling system. “I suggested it to Tom and Vera in the very beginning,” Brown says, “and they were willing to take a chance. I said, ‘If it doesn’t work, I’ll pay for it.’”

What was left of the Joneses’ old house was demolished and carted away in January 2013. Plans called for the new home to be built 30 feet forward on the property, closer to the street and away from the ocean. “Their home was more damaged than many since they were so close to the shoreline,” says Brown. The new house would be further protected by the town-wide reinforcement of Bay Head’s existing dunes.

The house would be elevated, but how high? At the time, FEMA was still finalizing its new height requirements to protect Shore homes from future storms. Initially, plans called for an elevation of 16 feet above sea level for the new house, but when FEMA stipulated 17 feet, the crew adjusted accordingly. “FEMA came out with height requirements while we were [driving the piles],” says Brown. “Height requirements were raised one foot, so that’s where we built.”

The crawl space under the elevated house was left wide open. “If water comes, it will rush right through,” says Brown. “It’s not a flood vent, it’s a total vent.”

Further conforming to construction regulations, the builders installed hurricane-resistant windows. “This house will withstand 200-mile-per-hour winds,” says Brown. He also suggested natural landscaping. “The homes that were least damaged by Sandy had a lot of natural plantings and large natural dunes,” says Brown. “We need to learn from that.” The Joneses readily accepted when a Girl Scout troop from Westfield offered to plant patches of sea grass in their dunes.

Aside from safe and strong, Brown and the Joneses were committed to building smart. The house is insulated with closed-cell polyurethane foam that forms a super-tight seal. “This house is so tight we can’t hear the ocean,” says Vera. “I have to open the doors and windows to hear the waves.”

The geothermal pilings are the home’s most innovative concept. The pilings serve as structural support beams, but also are the basis of the heating and cooling system for the home. The idea is to use the relatively constant and moderate temperature of the ground to help control the climate of the home. To that end, the approximately 35-foot-long wood pilings were drilled to accommodate long loops of PVC tubing that extend between 6 and 20 feet below the surface soil. The closed loops circulate water and a small amount of antifreeze from the home, into the ground and back again. In the winter, the water in the tubes absorbs heat from the ground and sends it back to a heat pump, where it is concentrated and used to heat the home. In summer, warm water from the home is cooled underground and circulated back into the home’s cooling system.

The system is far more efficient than traditional heating and cooling systems, which start with ambient hot air in summer and cold air in winter. “Most people are shocked at how low their energy bills are,” says Brown. And there are other benefits. “The best feature of a geothermal system, and certainly the favorite of the neighbors,” says Brown, “is the elimination of an air-conditioning compressor, which can be both noisy and unsightly.”

What’s more, using the pilings to create an underground loop does away with the expense of drilling a well. “When it’s possible to eliminate the cost of the well-drilling portion of a geothermal system, it becomes very cost-effective,” says Brown.

Nineteen months after the storm, over Memorial Day Weekend 2014, the Joneses moved back into their home. Inside, every room is painted beige, creating a natural flow to complement the open-floor plan. All the new furniture is in “sandy-beachy tones,” says Vera. In addition to the first-floor master suite, there are four upstairs bedrooms, each with its own bathroom. “Now there’s a room for everyone,” says Vera, happily anticipating family visits.

The house has a simple, uncluttered look. “We actually don’t have much stuff anymore,” says Vera, “because we weren’t able to rescue it after Sandy.”

But no worries, Vera adds. “The inside is not so important. Here, it’s all about being outside.”

Indeed, the expansive, shaded porch on the ocean side of the house—accessed through the living room or the master bedroom—is the ideal spot to watch the action unfold on the beach, or to simply listen to the crashing waves.

A wooden walkway leads from the porch to an elevated sun deck that sits high on a dune—a rock-and-sand revetment (or angled) wall reinforced after Sandy using local, state and federal resources to protect the home and its neighbors from future storms.

Just beyond the dune, down steep steps, the lifeguard stand has returned, too. The guards climb the steps at least twice daily to retrieve their safety equipment in the morning and stash it at night, often pausing for a quick hello. Another welcome Shore tradition lives on, despite Sandy.

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