HOISTING HOMES

by ALAENA HOSTETTER / photography by HOLGER OBENAUS

After the floods came, Morris Construction found a way to raise historic Charleston homes.

HOMEBUILDER AND RENOVATOR Buz Morris of Morris Construction figured out how to raise a historic house in downtown Charleston 7 feet off the ground out of necessity.

“We were in the middle of renovating my client’s two-story house and then Hurricane Irma came through, and we had to deal with 4 to 6 inches of water on the bottom floor,” says Morris. “She came to me and said, ‘I want to raise my house.’ At that time, nobody had yet raised a historic house in downtown Charleston to combat the recent flooding.”

The mechanics of raising the house weren’t even the most difficult part. Getting clearance from the city and the Board of Architectural Review (BAR) were obstacles Morris had to navigate with his client, Margaret Peery, the first resident in downtown Charleston to insist her house be raised to 14 feet base flood elevation (BFE)—a standard set by FEMA—which amounted to 7 feet off the ground.

Those living in coastal areas have a front-row seat to the rising water levels of oceans and rivers, and the increased occurrence of storms caused by climate change. Because it was built on a former marsh and is surrounded by water on three sides, Charleston is especially susceptible to flooding.

“We’ve had four floods in the span of three years,” Morris says. “It’s a huge issue in this town, and people are drawing the line.”

Additionally, homeowners now must contend with decreasing property values because of the flooding. “Nobody’s going to buy your house if it floods,” says Morris. “It’s also really bad for a person, mentally, if you have water in your house.”

For the 78-year-old Peery, raising her house provided peace of mind that her son with special needs would have a safe, habitable home for decades to come. “I raised the house because I really didn’t have any other option. I couldn’t leave my son and a caretaker in a house that floods every two to three years. I had to elevate it,” she says.

 

 

Morris and Peery are trailblazers in a city that’s averse to altering historic architecture. “The Board of Architectural Review is against people raising their houses because once you’ve moved the house or raised it, it’s no longer historic,” Morris explains.

“The most difficult part was working with the city and convincing the BAR that the house had to be raised to 14 feet BFE,” Peery says. “The city was blindsided. … The BAR was more worried about the fabric of the city than the water inside a home. Now the city and the BAR are doing a better job of handling elevations.”

That’s good news for Charlestonians because more residents have shown interest in elevating their homes. According to Morris, about 40 residents have submitted applications to BAR to raise their houses.

The procedure starts by removing all landscaping surrounding the house and disconnecting plumbing, electrical and ductwork underneath. Steel is put in place to stabilize the structure from below. Then jacks begin hoisting the house up, approximately 8 inches per hour.

Helical steel-and-concrete piers are driven into the ground underneath the home all the way down to the bedrock—some 80 feet beneath Peery’s house—to sustain the weight of the structure. For Peery’s home, the new space beneath the house was encircled by a lovely 8-foot-tall brick skirt to give it a finished look.

“It was a complicated process and a huge learning experience, but we’ve paved the way so it should be easier for others,” says Morris, a former architect who’s no stranger to figuring things out. “I’m an expert in home raising now.” He says this last with a laugh.

So far in his career, Morris has specialized in high-end home builds and renovations, but he feels certain he’ll have a lot more requests for home raising after the success of the Peery residence.

“I felt safe with Buz at the helm,” says Peery. “When unexpected things happened, I didn’t stress because I knew that he and his team would handle all the problems, and everything would be OK. I love the finished product. It’s everything I had dreamed it would be and more.”

__

Alaena Hostetter is a content strategist, editor and journalist who writes about art, design, culture, music, entertainment and food.