Should You Raise Your Home on Stilts, Piers, Concrete Blocks?
Taking into account insurance uncertainty and the current cost to replace your existing home, spending $30,000 to lift your entire structure may be a good deal.
Floods are happening in places they shouldn’t. But in the places we know floods are just around the corner, maybe it’s time to “elevate” the conversation. Let’s talk about raising your existing home to survive almost any flooding event.
What’s an Elevated Home?
As the name suggests, these houses built (or raised) above ground level to protect them from flooding. You may be most familiar with the classic stilt homes seen on post cards or old movies. But home can also be elevated on concrete block walls, piers, posts, or concrete columns.
And elevated homes don’t have to look spindly and out of place. If you’re looking for style as well as function, for example, check out this great collection of custom elevated homes.
Homes on stilts have proven remarkably resilient. This one rode out Hurricane Ike on the Texas Gulf Coast, only to be abandoned in later years.
Stilt Homes vs. Other Types of Elevated Homes
Stilt homes and homes on concrete blocks differ in several ways. Stilt homes are typically built on wooden, steel, or reinforced concrete piles driven into the ground, while homes on concrete blocks are elevated using concrete piers or blocks placed at key load-bearing points under the house. The construction process for stilt homes is generally more complex and requires more specialized labor and equipment.
In terms of strength, both wooden post and reinforced concrete block pillars can withstand significant lateral forces from flood surges. You can find building companies that specialize in lifting homes, and they will either recommend an engineer or offer their in-house expert.
Economic Considerations of Elevated Homes
The cost of elevating a home can vary widely depending on the type of elevation and whether it's a new construction or a retrofit. Retrofitting an existing home to elevate it varies widely in cost. TodaysHomeowner.com put together the table below to estimate the elevating cost of a home, based on its square footage:
These figures will vary depending on what the home is built of. For example, a wood-framed home or one made with structural insulated panels may be easier to raise than a concrete block structure. In the latter case, the best option may be to reinforce the existing walls and add a new floor above the first one. This process is outlined in this FEMA guide.
A Few Elevated Home Survival Stories
If you’re looking for examples of homes that have proven the effectiveness of raising homes above flood waters, try these:
The Sand Palace in Mexico Beach, Florida, was built on 40-foot pilings, with walls made of poured concrete and reinforced with rebar and steel cables. According to CNN, it was designed to withstand winds of about 240 to 250 mph, far exceeding the state code requirement of 120 mph. The house survived Hurricane Michael in 2018 with minimal damage.
Warren and Pam Adams' House, Gilchrist, Texas: This house, according to CNN, survived Hurricane Ike in 2008. It was the only house still standing in their section of Gilchrist, Texas after the hurricane. The house was supported 14 feet off the ground by wooden columns. Despite the devastation around it, the house remained standing, although the interior was damaged by the storm surge.
Sultana Hasen's House, Orleans Parish, Louisiana: After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Sultana Hasen decided to rebuild and elevate her home to avoid future flood damage. FEMA reports that the house is elevated on pilings, and was partly funded by the Repetitive Flood Claims (RFC) grant program. When Hurricane Isaac hit New Orleans in 2012, Hasen's elevated home escaped unscathed, while floodwaters damaged her neighbors' homes.
Elevating Your House May Require Persistence
Only about 18 percent of homes hit by Hurricane Ian in Florida had flood insurance. With an elevated home, you greatly reduce your risk from flooding, to the point that many homeowners can do without flood insurance with minimal risk.
But not everyone (or every HOA) loves the look of elevated homes.
For example, in an article titled "Built on Stilts: Karrie Jacobs on a Strange New Kind of House Being Built", our friend Lloyd Alter points out that not every house looks good on stilts. They were designed for modest homes, not McMansions: “These things are totally bizarre, traditional McMansions jacked up in the air on stilts to get above the floodlines set after Katrina and Sandy,” he notes. “There used to be a real vernacular of houses built on stilts in the south, but they tended to be light and small. Now they are just ridiculous things.”
Of greater concern to would-be house risers might be HOA resistance. They may complain about the look of stilts, or push back against second story additions.
What you very quickly run into in their massive and overwrought bylaws and guidelines are phrases like this: “New construction must be harmonious in size, scale, massing, form, & roof type. New construction must also be harmonious to neighboring buildings on a specific block as well as the neighborhood/burrow that it is located.”
So yeah, in the little dictatorships known as HOAs, the old ways are almost always presented as the best (and only) ways. To overcome them, you could end up in a costly lawsuit, although my educated hunch is that you would ultimately prevail. HOAs generally can’t enforce rules that contradict State and Local laws or building codes.
Of course, when the next monster storm hits, most of the opposition may be washed away, and you could rebuild your home properly for the location on an elevated platform.