Increasingly, houses in coastal Sussex are being built to withstand all Mother Nature can throw at them
By Lynn R. Parks
From the August 2019 issue
Recent studies tell us that the Atlantic Ocean along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States is rising more quickly than seas elsewhere around the world. Some estimates say that by the end of this century, the waters along the Sussex coast could be 3½ feet higher than they are now.
That makes home builder Randy Burton curious. In fact, he’d like to be around in that distant future to see how some of the oceanfront houses his Lewes-area company has constructed are holding up.
“It’s kind of fascinating to think about,” says Burton. “I wish that I could fast-forward a couple hundred years, just to see how the houses look.”
Burton Builders has put up two homes along Ocean Drive in North Shores, north of Rehoboth Beach, that are constructed to withstand hurricane-force wind, driving rain and powerful waves from a storm surge. One, completed in 2012, can take whatever a Category 2 storm throws at it, including winds blowing at up to 110 mph. The other, which went up in 2015, will remain standing even amid the strongest storm, a Category 5, with winds blowing at more than 157 mph. That house — a 5,800-square-foot replica of a Georgia mansion, complete with front-porch columns and covered with more than 200,000 red bricks — will stand strong even if raging seas wash away the dune between it and the Atlantic as well as the sand beneath its ground floor, to a depth of 20 feet.
A third house, under construction and expected to be completed next summer, will be able to withstand a Category 2 hurricane, Burton says. Its pilings were driven to a depth of 45 feet and the house, with a steel frame, has foot-thick concrete walls on the first floor. The structure is designed to remain standing even if the earth beneath it washes away to a depth of 15 feet.
Burton acknowledges that climate change and the warming oceans that come with it are changing the Sussex coastline. “With sea level rise, in 200 years these houses will be fishing reefs,” he predicts. “Kids will be coming out here in their boats, having parties. The houses will be surrounded by water.”
But, he argues, the three homes along Ocean Drive are so sturdy that even if useful only as fish habitat, “they will still be intact.”
Putting up buildings like these three is “a huge challenge,” Burton notes, “but the reward is huge. In the end, you know that you have built something that is remarkable, not just a hollow wood structure.”
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