By Christopher Smith / FEMA
LONG ISLAND CITY, NY – Tom Paino is an architect with a New York City agency. He is also the owner of two side-by-side brownstones in the Queens neighborhood of Long Island City. Built in 1903, the three-story brownstones are located two blocks from the East River, in the middle of a densely populated residential neighborhood.
Paino has lived in one of the brownstones since purchasing it in 1995. The other unit was purchased in 2010, and has remained unoccupied, as the previous tenants left the unit in extremely poor condition. To make the unit livable, Paino knew it would require a significant refurbishment. Approximately five years ago, however, the flood hazard maps for the area were revised by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) and Paino’s neighborhood was then determined to sit within the regulatory floodplain. With the revision of the maps, the lowest floor of the brownstone sat two feet below the Base Flood Elevation (BFE), which is determined to be the calculated height to which potential floodwaters could rise.
The exterior of Paino's brownstone unit prior to the beginning of the project.
“When we originally filed the plans to do the renovation, the building department told us that because the lowest level was below the BFE, we wouldn’t be able to use that level for anything but parking or storage,” said Paino. “So, our first thought of how to deal with the floodplain issue was to sell the brownstone. As we thought more about it, though, we knew that we loved the neighborhood and wanted to find a way to adapt to the situation so we wouldn’t have to leave.”
NFIP regulations require that when a structure in the floodplain is either damaged or renovated fifty percent or more of its fair market value, that structure must be brought into compliance with local floodplain management ordinances. This meant that because of the new mapping, to undergo any substantial renovation, Paino would have to cease using the lowest floor for anything other than parking or storage, or find a way to elevate the structure. Though Paino’s current residence also sat below the BFE, it would not require the same improvements to that unit because it was not damaged and was not in need of renovation.
Paino brought his problem to a structural engineer, who quickly identified a potential solution. As the brownstone in need of renovation was a middle unit, it would be impossible to elevate the entire existing structure. The brownstones were designed incorporating a party wall system, which meant that the walls on either side of the brownstone supported the structure of the units equally, and according to the law, are equally owned by the respective tenants. Though Paino owned the brownstone on one side of the unit to be renovated, the other brownstone was owned by a neighbor, who was worried that the renovation would negatively impact their unit.
“The structural engineer came to look at the brownstones, and saw we had the party walls,” said Paino. “He told us it was no problem. We could use the same walls to maintain the structure, and just remove the joists and raise the floors to a higher level (without damaging the neighbor’s property).”
It quickly became obvious that the work the brownstone would require entailed much more than a mere renovation. Despite utilizing the still-standing walls, raising the floors would essentially constitute new construction, which meant acquiring a whole series of permits from the various New York City offices involved in development. To facilitate the redesign of the brownstone, Paino not only hired the structural engineer, but also an energy efficiency expert, another architect and a general contractor who specializes in green, or ecologically conscious, construction.
They decided to raise the floors of the brownstone approximately three feet. This allowed them to get the lowest floor one foot above the required elevation level, giving them some extra breathing room in the case of future flooding. The high ceilings allowed them to raise the floors without significantly altering the original design of the brownstone. When removing the original wooden joists, Paino chose to replace them with steel joists to offer greater strength. Though a practical decision, it was not without its difficulties.
“When you see lumber from 1903, in perfect condition, and you have to take it out, that hurts,” said Paino. “It was just beautiful wood. We were able to recycle it, however. There’s a man who makes furniture out of it around the corner from us, so we did manage to preserve it all, thankfully.”
The interior of Paino's brownstone during the renovation process. Note the former floor level with the filled-in joist pockets, demonstrating the height to which the floor was raised. (Click to enlarge for detail.)
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