New Jersey's architects and builders are starting to see the early signs of reconstruction work tied to Hurricane Sandy, though an all-out building boom still may be months away as questions about federal funding and elevation guidelines remain contentious.
For design firms in hard-hit Jersey Shore counties, especially those with residential practices, much of the demand is coming from homeowners who are willing to proceed with elevation projects. Jack Purvis, an architect in the Allenwood section of Wall, said residential work had slowly started to return to the industry's pipeline last year, but "really went through the roof with the demand" from homes damaged by Sandy.
"I've done a few residential renovations or additions to existing homes, but not to the magnitude that this is," said Purvis, New Jersey chapter president of the American Institute of Architects. "This is really helping the economy — not just for architects, but for the whole building trade."
While nearly six months have passed since Sandy tore through New Jersey, Purvis said the uptick began only recently. That's because local governments did not require architectural drawings for much of the initial work after the storm, such as water damage remediation and floor replacements.
As of late March, though, Purvis' three-member firm was doing design work for three elevation projects and fielding inquiries from at least two others, he said. The storm created "a whole new requirement" for architecture firms, and the industry may only be scratching the surface at this point.
That activity has spread to contractors, especially those involved in building foundations and pile work, said Dave Fisher, treasurer of the New Jersey Builders Association. He attributed the work to federal funding sources that were available early on, such as the National Flood Insurance Program; through March 29, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said the program had paid out more than $3 billion in claims.
And while other contracts have come from owners who can pay for the upgrades on their own, Fisher said there are scores of other homes in communities like Union Beach, Keansburg and Toms River, where the reconstruction work is still months away. He said a greater wave of building opportunities may be tied to how the state spends more than $1.8 billion in federal funding — the first phase of relief grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Gov. Chris Christie late last month submitted a so-called action plan for the Community Development Block Grant funds. If approved by HUD, Christie said the plan could steer funding toward more than 20,000 homeowners, with allocations like a $600 million grant program for reconstruction, elevation and mitigation of damaged dwellings.
HUD has until about mid-May to approve the plan, though agency officials and Christie have both hinted at the prospect of fast-tracking the review. That means that "probably by late spring or early summer, there will be a lot more people in the position to decide what they're able to do," Fisher said.
He said another major issue for those who have to rebuild is the uncertainty over new elevation standards, which are used to determine flood insurance rates. Christie has encouraged property owners to go by guidelines the state has adopted in an advisory form, but final adoption by the federal government may be at least a year away.
And it will get stickier in the spring, when FEMA issues updated maps that "may be criticized and challenged to a certain extent," said Fisher, a vice president with K. Hovnanian Homes, in Red Bank. "And until that plays out, there are some people, I think, who may be reluctant to rebuild until they know where those maps are going to kind of settle."
Stephen J. Carlidge, founder of Shore Point Architecture, in the Ocean Grove section of Neptune, said his firm is working on about 30 post-Sandy residential projects. But commercial projects also are starting to appear — the practice in late March had four such assignments, including a retail building in Margate and a municipal beach pavilion in Loch Arbour.
The retail structure, a freestanding liquor store, presents a challenge that Carlidge said will reflect other commercial projects: many are masonry buildings, or are simply larger and heavier than wood-frame houses, "so you don't just lift them up." His firm is overseeing flood-proofing measures that include reinforcing the walls and raising the bottom of each window by four feet to comply with new elevation standards.
Flood-proofing the store's entrance is taking a much more unconventional solution, Carlidge said. The owner is installing steel flood gates, made of removable, 30-pound panels that interlock and can be set up to close in front of the entrance before a storm.
Carlidge said his firm has been consulting FEMA guidelines on flood-proofing commercial buildings, which he didn't know existed prior to Sandy. The lack of familiarity also has served as a stumbling block for local building officials overseeing the renovations, he said, noting that "this is new for everyone."
"This is the first time we've ever had to try to make a building flood-proof, and the first time we've ever had to use flood gates, so that was a little bit of a learning experience for us," he said. "And I think it's a learning experience for most of the building departments, too. They've never dealt with anything like this."
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