Traditional Building Portfolio
Palladio Awards

Project: Beachtown House, Galveston, TX

Architect: Michael G. Imber, Architects, PLLC, San Antonio, TX; Michael G. Imber, FAIA, principal and lead design architect; Brandan Moss, project manager

Contractor: J.A. Weldon Construction, Inc., Galveston, TX


New Design & Construction – less than 5,000 sq.ft.
Winner: Michael G. Imber, Architects, PLLC

Building for the Inevitable

By Dan Cooper

Those who work or live in Galveston, TX, do so under the assumption that it's not a matter of if, but when they will be forced to endure a devastating storm. The coastal city, long a commercial port, has been subject to a perpetual buffeting by nature's darker side, most notably during the monumental hurricane of 1900, which is still considered one of the nation's worst natural disasters. It was here, in 2009, that Michael G. Imber, Architects, of San Antonio addressed the twin issues of New Urbanism and the ability withstand the full fury of a Gulf Coast hurricane.

It was Hurricane Katrina's wholesale obliteration of so many Southern cities that served as the impetus and motivation for New Urbanist architects to take an organized, holistic approach to an expedited rebuilding of a decimated city or town, and the team included Michael Imber. "I had the opportunity after Katrina to help get the community back on its feet and replace the missing buildings in Mississippi, and it was here that I observed what worked and what didn't in building specifically for a coastal setting," he recounts. "This project in Galveston has a special meaning for me personally as well, for I lost a great-grandmother in the storm of 1900."

Imber was enlisted to design and oversee the building of a magazine show house, The Beachtown House, in the New Urbanist community of the same name located on Galveston's seafront. His challenges were many; not only did he have to build an attractive beach house on one of Galveston's narrow coastal lots, but it also had to withstand the destructive forces of nature all while keeping in mind sustainable construction that could handle excessive salt and humidity as well.

Working on the assumption that the first story of the house would one day be flooded, Imber elevated the main floor of the living area to 23 ft. 6 in. above base flood elevation, hopefully above the greatest possible storm surge. The floor was set on concrete pilings, leaving the vulnerable ground floor for parking, storage and a covered porch. Next, Imber had to somehow make the house appear as if it was not built on stilts, and aesthetically connect with the streetscape. He accomplished this by veneering the sides of the ground floor with breakaway wall systems that would separate from the pilings in the event of a powerful storm.

"Blow-out or breakaway walls can be constructed from simple latticework, louvers or even fully framed and sided walls that coordinate with the upper stories," says Imber. "They push away under the hydraulic pressure of a storm surge.

"Before this, the solution was to elevate coastal buildings on pilings, which gave the impression of a street full of houses on top of a forest of telephone poles. It wasn't very neighborly, so we worked hard to visually connect the house to the street with the use of the breakaway wall systems. To further this we situated the stoop and entry just above the ground floor, and this also reduced the impression of the house being removed from the street. The front door is a visual cue to the passerby that the house is part of the neighborhood, and not built unto itself."

Because the entry was built at a level that could well be flooded, Imber dictated that this antechamber be finished in materials that could survive prolonged exposure to water. This below-flood-level room required persuading those in charge of maintaining the building code to allow a stoop and entry door with a long staircase that leads to the living space. Imber also specified materials that could withstand not only the occasional storm, but also the persistent humidity of the Texas coast. "We used BluWood as a substrate to prevent rot and termite infestations, and HardiePlank for the siding along with AZEK moldings," he says. "They can all handle the constant abuse from the elements and are much more durable than the traditional building materials, even if they're submerged in saltwater."

Due to their prime real estate value, beachfront lots are often narrow, and the footprints of the houses tend to consume the most amount of land possible. Imber was wary of creating a house with a gloomy interior, and solved this potential problem by designing a monitor and light-shaft that runs the length of the house. "A beach house demands light, so we chose to cut this core through the center of the house to open up the stairwell and flood it with sunlight," he says. "It also illuminates the dining room and kitchen. Another advantage is that the monitor creates a Venturi effect, and circulates air through the home, preventing it from getting muggy and dank."

Stylistically, Imber turned to Galveston's rich architectural history to design the house's elevations. "Earlier in the 19th century, Galveston was the second largest commercial center in the west next to San Francisco, and the success of the gulf businessmen was expressed in the public and private buildings they erected," says Imber. "There are prime examples of Carpenter Gothic and mid-Victorian as well as the more humble coastal vernacular. This architectural heritage served as the DNA for the design of the house, and we saw it as a chance to extend the high style of downtown towards the beach. So it's a transition between high-style and rustic."

The project was a highly anticipated event. "When the house was finished, it was opened for tours as an Idea House, and roughly 25,000 people went through it," says Imber. Key suppliers for the project included Brinkmann Roofing of Texas; Chico Tile of Chico, CA; M.I. Glass Inc. of Houston, TX; and Total Floors of Houston, TX.

Ironically, two weeks after the house opened to the public, Galveston was slammed by Hurricane Ike, and the house was flooded with a 15-ft. storm surge. "The only damage was that the walls blew out as they should and the ground floor had 18 in. of sand, but the upper levels were fine," says Imber. "One of the lessons we learned was to put a bulkhead at the stoop height to prevent moisture from migrating up the long, central stairway." No furnishings in the living areas were harmed, and Imber and the entire team were thrilled that their efforts withstood the storm exactly as planned.

"The lessons we learned as architects, as a profession, from these storms, and from the way the construction reacted to it, helped us to carry forward the knowledge to improve the built environment of these coastal cities. Our design for Beachfront became a model for the Galveston building department and the Texas Department of Insurance, which sets the hurricane standards for the state."  



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