Seven years ago, when Michael Jensen and Susan Strober bought a 40-year-old home on the Gulf of Mexico, they knew that a renovation was in their future. The existing four-bedroom structure on Siesta Key, Sarasota, Fla., had the tranquil Asian look they loved, but the house had become a battered beauty. More than four decades of “storm events,” a phrase bandied about a lot in Florida, had taken their toll on the house, which is located below the flood base elevation and within 20 feet of the gulf's high-water line.
What the couple didn't know was that the renovation would eventually involve more than 2 years of planning and getting the required permits, and 2½ years of construction, during which time the original 3,970-square-foot house would do a vanishing act. It was detached and raised 6 feet from its foundation while the foundation walls were extended up; demolished down to the existing structural floor system; then reconstructed, in very much the same Asian-inspired style, on the original footprint. At that point the house got a name, Seijaku, which is Japanese for serenity.
Along the way the pool would be filled with sand and then excavated, a two-story guesthouse would be built behind the main house, Mother Nature would make periodic destructive visits, and extensive native landscaping would turn the one-acre site, bordered by the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Intracoastal Waterway on the other, into a Zen-like jewel.
“This was not for the weak or queasy,” says remodeler Michael K. Walker of Michael K. Walker & Associates in Sarasota. “Mike and Sue were phenomenal clients. They were committed to hanging in there and doing whatever it took to make this project work.”
By the Letter
In Florida, any renovation done on a home located below the flood base elevation — sometimes referred to as “the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) elevation” — has to contend with the “50% rule.” This rule basically says that remodeling costs cannot exceed 50% of a home's appraised value. This means, for example, that a house appraised at $200,000 is limited to a $100,000 remodeling budget. Given what Jensen, Strober, and their architects, Zen Associates of Sudbury, Mass., wanted to do with the house — which was a good three feet below the flood base elevation — any sort of financial restriction would have been problematic.
But one item on their design wish list ended up rendering the 50% rule moot.
“The homeowners asked if we could raise the building up, since it was awfully close to the water,” says Mark Smith of Smith Architects in Sarasota. Smith had been brought onboard by Walker to act as the administrative architect on the project and to oversee the permitting process at the county level. It turns out that raising the building — above the FEMA elevation — meant that financial restrictions would not apply. That is, of course, if Walker and company could persuade the various authorities that their innovative plan would conform to code.
Three was the magic number when it came to permitting. Walker needed exemptions on three separate structures (the main house, a new two-story guesthouse, and a covered walkway) from three different entities: the Sanderling Club, the gated community where the home is located; Sarasota County; and, of course, the state of Florida.
Walker proposed the most radical idea for the main house. “We could not modify or alter the existing footprint in the ground, but we could go vertical,” Walker says. “So we raised up the house by six or seven feet, added masonry blocks to the existing footprint up to about four feet, and then we let the house back down. As soon as we did that the 50% renovation limit didn't apply anymore. We were now exempt. At that point we tore the existing house completely down to the floor. We had to leave the floor because it was part of the original foundation. From there we could construct a new house within the existing footprint.”
It took a house mover three days to get the house in the air, where it stayed for six weeks while courses of block were added to the existing foundation (see “What Goes Up Must Come Down” - next page). Meanwhile, the permitting and exemption process plowed on.
“This was the ultimate cat-and-mouse game from a permitting standpoint,” Walker says. “Eyebrows were raised when the house disappeared, but it was completely legal. You have to be very clear about the requirements before you can attempt something like this, which takes a lot of experience and an intimate understanding of the requirements. Everything was done to the letter.”