Letter From Home: Florida architects plan for 3 feet of sea-level rise


Finally taking a couple of vacation days late last month, I visited one of my favorite Florida locales, charming Mount Dora in Lake County.

I resisted the urge to buy a T-shirt on which “I climbed Mount Dora, elevation 184 feet” is printed over the outline of two snow-capped, real-mountain peaks.

But the thought came to me that if the sea rises too far, one could always take refuge in this or the other towns along Florida’s Lake Wales Ridge. The land is cheap, at least for now.

U.S. 27 on the Lake Wales Ridge in Clermont, Lake County, Florida. Staff photo / Harold Bubil; 7-2-2016.

U.S. 27 on the Lake Wales Ridge in Clermont, Lake County, Florida. Staff photo / Harold Bubil; 7-2-2016.

The ridge is quite hilly, especially in and around Clermont, where Sugarloaf Mountain soars to 312 feet.

Topped by U.S. 27, the ridge runs from Mount Dora south about 150 miles; you encounter its southern portion when driving State Road 70 to the east coast.

Of course, if the water ever gets to where it is lapping at the ridge, you probably will have moved out of state by then.

Or, you might have elevated your house and bought a kayak.

The predicted rise in sea level is something for which architects are seriously planning. St. Petersburg architect Andrew Hayes, chair of the Strategic Council of the American Institute of Architects’ Florida/Caribbean chapter, calls rising sea levels “a topic of growing concern in coastal communities all over the world.”

AIA Florida has a new policy on the matter: “Our members should plan for three feet of sea level rise (SLR), in dealing with clients, municipal building codes and related professionals, such as engineers.”

Andrew Hayes, AIA.

Andrew Hayes, AIA.

The policy points to “the preponderance of scientific evidence that sea level rise is now unstoppable, regardless of the important efforts focused on sustainability. Given the uncertainty of exactly how fast sea level will rise over the course of this century, but noting that effects are already being seen in low-lying coastal communities, as a general guideline, we recommend that building designs, codes and infrastructure accommodate three feet of sea level rise for projects in all low-lying areas, even those farther inland and up tidal rivers.”

The architects were in part guided by “High Tide On Main Street,” by oceanographer John Englander. Writes Hayes in an opinion-editorial recently released by AIA Florida, “He made clear a few points that are often overlooked:

“1. SLR is very different than temporary flooding from storms, heavy rainfall, and extreme high tide events, because it is an essentially permanent increase to the ocean height that may not reverse itself for thousands of years. ... With higher sea level, we cannot recover and rebuild.

“2. What works in the Netherlands and New Orleans may not work in South Florida. SLR affects different locations in different ways, due to factors such as land subsidence that adds to effective SLR, or porous rock that makes sea walls ineffective.

“3. Because the oceans have been already warmed 1.5 degrees, which will cause further melting of the ice on Greenland and Antarctica, we must recognize that SLR is now unstoppable.”

Hayes said delaying action will only make the problem worse.

“The longer we delay recognizing the slow rise of sea level, the more it becomes ‘the elephant in the room,’ ” he writes. “Sooner or later, many investors and residents will sell and quietly leave, fearing inevitable devaluation.

“Rising sea level will cause huge losses, and, in some places, will literally redraw the shoreline. Fortunately, the phenomenon is slow, allowing us time to plan for the change our communities will inevitably need. The sooner we start building for this new reality, the sooner we will be investing in the future. It can start with something as basic as raising the finished ‘floor elevation,’ road heights and other infrastructure to allow for storms and extreme tides causing temporary flooding, and eventually for sustained flooding from higher sea level.”

Hayes and his colleagues say the challenge can be met with new construction, adaptation and innovative designs as fulfill their mission to build communities that will survive for future generations.

“Rising sea level is the latest challenge and a huge one. This new policy ... is the bold first step. We really have no other option. We should embrace it head-on, see it as our gift to future generations, and the best investment for our communities.”

From a reader

Readers, of course, have varied opinions on this matter. Some believe the seas are not rising, others feel the climate is warming but that man has nothing to do with it, and still others may attribute sea-level rise to subsidence rather than a warming atmosphere.

Regarding last week’s column on energy efficiency being a key strategy for sustainability, I received this email:

“Mr. Bubil: The first few paragraphs of your article intrigued me, as I had not heard your take on the last 40 years of earth cooling/global warming for quite some time.

“When I was in high school in the late ‘50s and in college in the early ‘60s, my science class talked of the end of the Ice Age and how the pollution from leaded gasoline-driven cars and other fossil fuels was surely going to bring on another Ice Age if we did not do something about it. Now it’s just the opposite, it seems.

“I agree with your statement — efficiency is going to be the best solution for the future. I wonder how many decades after green energy is used and other sources are near maximum efficiency that we will still be able to sustain our existence.”

— Richard D Teichgraeber, Ph.D., P.E., Sarasota

Harold Bubil

Recipient of the 2015 Bob Graham Architectural Awareness Award from the American Institute of Architects/Florida-Caribbean, Harold Bubil is real estate editor of the Herald-Tribune Media Group. Born in Newport, R.I., his family moved to Sarasota in 1958. Harold graduated from Sarasota High School in 1970 and the University of Florida in 1974 with a degree in journalism. For the Herald-Tribune, he writes and edits stories about residential real estate, architecture, green building and local development history. He also is a photographer and public speaker. Contact him via email, or at (941) 361-4805.
Last modified: July 8, 2016
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