On an unseasonably warm October morning, the Delaware River flows less majestically than it normally does through Bucks County, Pa. It hasn't rained in the county for a month, and the river level is low. For Bill and Donna Elliott, that's a mixed blessing because they bought their vacation home, in the town of Point Pleasant, Pa., four years ago primarily for a view of its riverfront panorama. But the river also flooded their house twice (each time just weeks before they were about to move in as remodeling was being completed), and ultimately motivated the now-retired couple to move their house to higher ground, onto the other side of the flood plain, 100 feet from the riverbank.
Their 3 1/2-year ordeal, which entailed three different periods of renovation, was worth the effort, as the house ducked the ravages of a third flood in June 2006. And where other owners would have thrown in the towel, the Elliotts persevered, and in the process formed a special bond with their general contractor, Joe Billingham of the design/build company Billingham Built, in Erwinna, Pa. "There is no way we would have stayed with this house if it wasn't for Joe," Donna Elliott says.
She and Bill reside in Chicago in a house that overlooks Lake Michigan. They saw their vacation house in Point Pleasant as a retirement getaway, and one where they could be nearer their daughter, who lives in New York City. The first time she drove up to the home, Donna recalls falling in love with the natural surroundings. "I didn't really care about the house." But as the old saying goes: Be careful what you wish for.
The 4,000-square-foot house dates back to the 1940s and is at the end of a twisting dirt and gravel path. Even under ideal circumstances, remodeling would have been a challenge, as it had been rehabbed and expanded at least four times before the Elliotts purchased it for $1.5 million in July 2003. "It was a house literally in five different pieces," says Billingham, whom the Elliotts hired in October 2003.
The couple wanted to upgrade the wiring and electrical systems, replace the floors and molding, and open up the basement by removing walls and installing a new bathroom. Billingham, who has worked in this market for 35 years, says the house's interior was very dark (the walls throughout were either painted blue or were paneled) and its design old-fashioned. He suggested "bringing the river into the house" by expanding the living spaces and letting in more light through larger windows. He removed a wall separating the dining and living rooms on the main floor to create one great room that leads to a library and — through sliding doors — to a sunroom and porch. Upstairs, he and his crew tore out the bathroom to create a suite that includes a bedroom and sitting area that connect via a small stairway. The master bathroom was overhauled and redesigned, with a centerpiece of a large soaking tub next to a giant window with river views.
The couple had used contractors before in previous homes, but Donna says the remodel of this house was unusually collaborative. "Joe was the first contractor we've worked with who sees your vision and then tries to enhance it," she says.
After numerous discussions, the team added a design/build component to handle additional items including gutting the kitchen and laundry areas to install new cabinets, and remodeling other baths and bedrooms. "This project is a testament to successful design/build relationships," says Joe Catelli, the project's architect, who has worked with Billingham for 20 years. "It's always better to take the team approach, where the builder, owner, and architect work together."
Double Water Log
All told, the Elliotts spent about $125,000 for this first stage. But just as Billingham Built was completing its work, in September 2004, the river flooded. Water filled the basement and two entry foyers and the main floor took on six inches of water. The basement and main-floor remodeling work was ruined. But the Elliotts didn't want to give up on the house, as they were pleased with the upstairs rooms. They also had flood insurance through the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) that covered up to $250,000 in flood-related damages. "That took some of the sting out of the cost," Bill says. After the 2004 flood, to meet FEMA standards, the utilities had to be moved from the basement to the attic, which required rerouting the house's electrical and duct systems. Billingham installed a multizone heating and cooling system, and switched the house to gas heat from oil.
The repair work cost the Elliotts another $350,000. But a week before Billingham was about to wrap up this project, a second flood on April 10, 2005, put even more water into the main floor than the first deluge. The owners were in Chicago at the time, and Billingham, who was attending an awards banquet, speaks proudly of how his lead carpenter, Jeremy Hayes, and other crew members were immediately on the scene, lugging furniture and other possessions to the second floor to keep them from being damaged. Bill says he was ready to walk away at that point, and even thought about bulldozing the house. "This was supposed to be a vacation home, and I didn't want to have to worry every time it rained," he says. That's when Billingham asked the owners to consider moving the entire house to higher ground. "By this time, we were thinking ‘just do what Joe says,' " recalls Donna. And Billingham says he could sense the owners' growing trust in his judgment.
They found Dziuba & Son Building Movers, which specializes in moving residential and commercial buildings. The plan at first was to raise the house 9 feet, but FEMA wouldn't allow any "fill" around the foundation. "So we would have had to build the house on stilts," Billingham says, an unacceptable option for everyone concerned. Steve Dziuba, the moving company's owner, devised a way to relocate the house 100 feet back from where it sat, to what Billingham calls "the flood fringe" of the 2-acre property (see "Out of Harm's Way"). Billingham assigned Catelli to investigate what red tape had to be cut to facilitate the move.
The house move was executed in January 2006, after which Billingham's crew spent the next several months reconnecting the house to its foundation and utilities, and making repairs to the basement and first floor. Billingham brought in dehumidifiers to dry wide-plank heart pine flooring on the main floor that otherwise would have cost $50,000 to replace. He also replaced three stairwells. The second flood gave the owners and contractor a chance to reconsider some of the previous work. So they reconfigured the laundry area to make room for a full bathroom, which the owners removed from the basement. In the basement, the team chose "smart vents" built into the foundation to allow water to escape before it reaches the main floor.
Billingham was never happy with the quality of the kitchen cabinets Donna picked for the last remodel, so he took the opportunity to convince her to use custom cabinets, made by local supplier Superior Woodcraft, which include sliding compartments where she could store her collection of antique bread trays. Accent lighting illuminates the base of the kitchen island, a design touch that can be found around a ceiling recess in the second-floor hall and under a stair ledge in one upstairs bathroom that is slightly higher than its adjoining bedroom. The house move precipitated several other upgrades, such as the installation of new front-entrance columns, new decks, and a patio.
Billingham constructed a "service shed" on the side of the house for all of the cable and electrical circuit-box connections. And he connected the garage, which had been a separate building, to the house with a covered walkway that blends seamlessly with the rest of the architecture. Despite the landscape and technical challenges, there is no visible indication that the house has been moved. Catelli says he is most proud of the integration of the house into its environment. And it's still only a short walk from the house to a pier near the water (the last remnant of where the original house once sat), where one can watch a heron or bald eagle take flight over the river.
The Elliotts celebrated their first Thanksgiving in their vacation house in 2006, and eventually plan to make this their full-time home. The whole experience inspired Bill to travel with a relief agency that year to Mississippi to help rebuild four houses destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, which he did again in November 2007. As for Billingham, his gratification includes two satisfied customers, and a new appreciation for the dedication of his crew, his subcontractors, and even inspectors in Tinicum Township, who he says "bent over backward" to keep the project moving forward. "They understood what the owners were going through."