A little more than a year after Hurricane Sandy swept over New York City, architects have gone back to the drawing board to face the rising flood levels in the city.

Even properties that were somewhat prepared for potential floods got a rude awakening when the water reached well over the 100-year flood-line levels. Before Sandy, locally-based architecture firm Montroy, Andersen, DeMarco (MADGI) would often design a series of aluminum logs mounted to the ground and attached to the façade, which would structurally hold back up to six feet of water.

Moveable floodgate barriers attached to the ground and facade at a MADGI-designed property. PHOTO: Courtesy Montroy, Andersen, DeMarco

But a week after Sandy, the firm learned from one of its clients in the Highline district downtown that the building still sustained damages. So now, they’re going bigger.

“From that learning curve, we realized that we need to use belt and suspenders,” says Richard Demarco, principal at MADGI. “Not just flood gates at street levels but also, deal with the most critical elements of the building so they would not get damaged by flood waters.”

Electrical switchgear and fire pumps are some of the most vulnerable parts of a building, not to mention the most expensive, he says. It takes a lengthy amount of time to replace the material, and lengthens the time it takes for a building to get up and running again after a storm. So MADGI decided to relocate the sensitive items away from the cellar, a trend that many local developers are embracing.

Storm-proof Preservation
Just before Sandy hit, the Community Development Trust (CDT) was about to close on an acquisition-rehabilitation deal on a 19-story building in Coney Island, N.Y.  The $11 million dollar rehab plan for Ocean City Towers was still under contract during the due diligence phase when the flood came, spilling about 7 feet of water into the lobby and devastating two elevators.

CDT’s mission is to preserve affordable housing, a mission made even more urgent when 360 families at Ocean City Towers were affected by the storm.

“It threw a certain amount of doubt into the transaction,” says Brian Dowling, CDT’s vice president of community investment. “But it made it that much more important to us.”

Sandy’s events forced them to dial up their construction concerns to prevent for future disasters. For at least five days after the storm, there was no power in the building, a major concern considering the building ran on electric heat and temperatures began to dip.

Because the elevators were out of service for at least three months, residents who lived on higher-level floors had to use secured access on the roof to navigate the building, accessing adjacent towers, which, luckily, didn’t sustain as much damage.

The architects working with CDT suddenly had another challenge on their hands: a more robust storm-proofing process. First, they used the same thought process as MADGI in rethinking where to place the mechanical rooms. The development team then expanded the scope of the rehab work, replacing critical building elements and converting electric heat to natural gas boilers.

“We’re now putting them on elevated steel platforms that are above the hurricane flood levels,” Dowling says. “It makes the heating more resilient to future storms.”

By installing an emergency generator and inputting an intercom system in conjunction with a new fire alarm system, they’re ensuring the safety of residents. But those ideas were born from fear of another storm, after CDT revisited its plans.

“Most of what was mentioned were changes that were related to the hurricane occurring and things that we identified that are going to be necessary if any future storms occur,” Dowling adds.

Upselling Square Footage
Inspiration is sometimes a residue of luck, as MADGI found out when shopping for materials to storm-proof the basement of one client's building.

When looking for a partition to close off one portion of a cellar to protect sensitive material, MADGI stumbled upon some submarine doors that would be perfect for the space. The firm fabricated them for residential application to create a waterproof vault. And the floodgate system they used was constructed up to 9 feet high, almost double what was necessary for the rising flood level.

MADGI found that submarine doors would be the perfect fit to close off a concrete, specially-built vault. PHOTO: Courtesy Montroy, Andersen, DeMarco

The company has used this custom-designed method in at least six buildings, and are working on another at 560 West 24th St., which should be finished later this year.

“We’re prepared for a far more worse storm,” DeMarco says. “If those things failed, and it gets flooded, at least with the vault doors they’d be able to seal off those critical spaces.”

One of these submarine doors now cost about $50,000 to $70,000 dollars per application, almost three times its original cost before the storm. But even for properties that don't use the doors to protect cellar vaults, MADGI found a way to make things a bit more cost-effective for its clients.

Aside from new construction, MADGI spends plenty of time retrofitting old buildings to protect them against bad weather conditions. Their biggest trend is transferring the key components of the basement to a less desirable part of the building–like the back area of the 2nd floor. One drawback to that plan is losing some apartment space on the second floor.

But MADGI then proceeds to develop on the roof. They create more valuable space by transferring and expanding that lost square footage to the roof, offering penthouse suites, which makes way for revenue generation. And that additional revenue, over time, pays for the retrofit. Plus, where the boiler and other important items were formerly located, owners can re-imagine the space as a recreation area or laundry room.

“It’s a program that we’ve undertaken and seems to be a marketable way to re-utilize the buildings,” says Daniel Montroy, principal at MADGI.

-Linsey Isaacs is an assistant editor with Multifamily Executive magazine. Follow her on twitter @LinseyI  to continue this conversation.