Coastal Perspectives With Architect Michael McKinley

Posted: May 29, 2013

“All attention is directed to the shoreline now – people will continue to build right on the ocean no matter what happens. But that’s where our clients are. The terrain has changed – it’s a whole new world out there.” – Michael McKinley, Michael McKinley and Associates, LLC

When designing coastal projects, today’s architects must navigate a complex and changing landscape of codes and regulations, minimizing risk and managing their clients’ expectations for coastal living along the way. We caught up with Stonington, Connecticut Architect Michael McKinley, who specializes in designing exceptional coastal homes in New England communities, to learn more about how he achieves success for his coastal clients.

Front with hedge

  • What are the three most important things to look at when you begin a coastal project?

First, we look at the regulatory issues including FEMA regulations and local codes and ordinances. If these are not addressed, the rest doesn’t matter. Then, we view the property from the water, thinking about the home’s image from all angles. It’s interesting that the client often considers the water side to be the “front,” but in reality, coastal homes have two “fronts,” one of which is the water side. A lot of the images we put forth are from the land, but some of the most impressive are from the water – and you never see that from a car. That character of the water side is important. And finally, we consider the materials that go into a project, in terms of the weather conditions that a coastal location may face.

  • Talk to us about “working from the outside in” as you describe it on your website.

It’s about the way that the coastal residence gracefully transitions from outside to inside. The more gradual and eventful that transition is, the richer the architecture is. We draw our floor plan with the entire site in mind, working with critical exterior features including trees, landscapes and views, and then transitioning to the inside, with all season rooms and porches offering a “skirt” to the main structure.

  • What do you consider about windows and doors as they relate to interior design? Does this become complex when paired with performance requirements?

Yes, the relationship between interior design and exterior performance requires a lot of thought. Part of the reason it is complex is the industry-wide condition where Design Pressure ratings restrict product size choice.

Aesthetically, the double hung window is the window of choice for most of our clients. Sometimes, that means Casement and Awning windows are ruled out even though they offer a better Design Pressure rating than a double hung, and would be the best window style from strictly a performance perspective.

Additionally, it takes some effort to design a 6,000-square foot house just using double hung windows – but the orchestration of light and elements of the windows is the level of work that people pay us for. We want to develop musicality and scale windows to the exterior and to the interior. It’s easy to pick the windows and put them in – but harder to achieve the discipline and sense of balance on the interior that we look for in our projects.

We usually draw using Marvin window sizes, and then we readjust when we work with our local retailer. We often have a conversation where we go back and get feedback on what was drawn, and then get the recommendation on what should be done to meet the performance needs of the house within the product offerings.

  • What window and door trend are you seeing most for your coastal clients?

Right now Lift and Slide doors are the rage for my clients. We are using these in most of our coastal projects, not necessarily opening up directly to the outside, but opening onto porches or all season rooms. It’s a way to embrace indoor-outdoor living, even in a relatively modest house.

  • What is the greatest challenge when designing in these environments?

This comes back to the regulatory codes.  For example, Stonington, CT and Rhode Island have recognized coastal residential land as a natural resource (even though it is not state-owned).  These areas have imposed some stiff height limits on buildings so that there aren’t four-story buildings disturbing the imagery of the coastline and slope to water, respecting people who live inland. We run into some rigorous height limits – in Stonington, it’s 24’, which is a short two-story home. When you are talking about larger homes, this has led to a different way of thinking.

There are some communities that are less regulated in the height of the ridge and thus you can build four stories up. Then you get into this sort of vertical aesthetic and it’s a different conversation. The changing scale of the house means that some of your other expectations must change. There are all sorts of local extremes to deal  with.

  • What are some of the methods you employ in your design in order to minimize risk to the home (such as reinforcement for storms, etc)?

When it comes to risk management, a considerable number of precautions are mandated – and these standards grow and change every day.  In the face of these regulations and coastal realities, sometimes we need to counsel our clients that although we can build something, we may need to modify the plans to minimize the risk and to reduce the potential for workmanship or materials failure. For example, adding flashing and “mini-roofs” over windows is a great way to minimize risk.  And most doors are so protected now that we can focus more on the aesthetics.

  • How do you manage expectations when working with clients in complex coastal environments?

From an environment perspective, their vision and expectations really have to be managed when it comes to product, design and site.

On the coast, people are buying into a complex, highly regulated environment – but they don’t read FEMA regulations every day. So helping clients to develop realistic expectations is probably the most important issue when working on coastal projects.

  • As part of doing business on the coast, you offer a service called “Coastal Property Analysis”. Tell us more about this.

We developed this service that attempts to answer questions about how the proposed site will influence the build and design process.  It’s basically a careful examination of the feasibility of the site.

There are big questions that we can answer with this analysis – and to do that, we pull in resources from the locality and site engineering as needed. It’s not expensive, but it’s well worth the effort. With a designer’s approach to the site, we ask technical questions and put it in a report, providing value to the end-user. We talk about realistic options, cost, time for approval – and we subsequently build the buyer’s confidence in the purchase.  Even when our analysis tells us that the site will not be feasible, we find that the prospective homeowners are very grateful to have the information.

  • How do local codes affect your work?

It is always necessary for us to look at local codes. We have state building codes, and we have locality-specific FEMA regulations. However, the municipality itself can require even more, and they often do. It’s important when working in different communities to find out what is specifically required. Window protection is a good example. In coastal Connecticut, we have two communities next to each other. One requires impact windows and the one next door does not – it allows other forms of wind protection.

So when you consider the huge market in renovations out there on the coast, a careful understanding of and adherence to local codes is essential.

  • Are there supplemental services you look for from vendors?

We’ve had our best luck working with our local retailer, because as distributors of a variety of products, the retailer has a service that covers windows, framing, roofs, walls and waterproofing. We can have one meeting and get an idea about all of that. It’s a one-point process with them – over the last few years it has developed quite nicely. It is difficult for us to develop relationships with multiple different types of vendors.

  • What can a window and door retailer provide to help you with the coastal project process?

Support in specifying. A good window and door representative is part of the design process. When we get into complicated Lift and Slide door specifications, we’re not as familiar with that and we don’t want to find out later that there was a better way to do it.  We need the shop drawings and the ability to refine the specs. That’s huge – otherwise you’ll end up with just an “average” window and door project.

Throughout the summer, other coastal building professionals will share their thoughts and experiences with us.  In the meantime, if you have questions about a coastal project, contact the Hastings team. Email or call your Hastings Sales Representative.

Michael McKinleyMichael McKinley is Principal Architect for Michael McKinley and Associates in the seaside village of Stonington, CT.  Registered and licensed in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Florida, Michael specializes in residential design that is sensitive to the coastline.