Sea Change

Height requirements and insurance premiums are rising along with the water levels in Maine’s flood zones. We asked architect Kristi Kenney how homeowners can prepare for the next round of regulations.

For many, the Maine dream culminates with a waterfront home. But surging water levels effected by climate change can add challenges to owning a residence on the coast or an inland waterway. In the aftermath of recent hurricanes and other ecological disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is making significant revisions to flood zone requirements that will greatly impact the way homes in these areas are renovated and designed, says Kristi Kenney of KW Architects in Kennebunk. We called up Kenney, who has specialized in creative space planning in floodplains for over ten years, to find out what the new stipulations — due out in 2018 — mean for homeowners on or near the shores of our state.

Q: Why are the flood maps being updated?

A: Since Hurricanes Sandy and Irene, FEMA has decided that it no longer wants to pay for people to reconstruct their houses in a manner that it knows is going to be problematic in the near future. So the agency is compelling homeowners to prepare for rising water levels by instituting more stringent building requirements. These will affect properties on or near bodies of water throughout the state, as well as those abutting marshes and wetlands, where, in many cases, the water is rising higher and faster than it is along the beaches.

Q: What does someone who is building or renovating in a flood zone need to consider?

A: People need to decide if they’re going to build or update now or after the new regulations go into effect. I estimate that at least 90 percent of existing coastal homes in southern Maine, where I work, will not meet the future flood zone requirements. If your house does not comply, your renovation costs cannot exceed 50 percent of the appraised value of the house alone. So if you have a million dollar property, but your house is appraised at $150,000, you are limited to a $75,000 budget for renovations. That’s going to significantly impact what people can do with their properties.

Q: How else will homeowners be impacted if they don’t meet the new standards?

A: If you have a mortgage on a home that is not conforming, you will be required to have flood insurance. And those rates go up every year. If you don’t have a mortgage, insurance is not mandatory.

Q: So what are the new regulations?

A: Predictably, houses in flood zones will have to be elevated higher than they are today. Right now, we’re building first floors between three and six feet above grade to meet the current requirements. When the new rules go into effect, those numbers could increase by as much as five feet, depending on where you live. Many towns in these zones also impose a 30- to 35-foot building height limit. As architects and contractors grapple with meeting both the elevation and height restrictions, we’re going to see significant changes in the way homes are designed. In many cases, people will no longer be able to have two full stories and a pitched roof and be in compliance.

Q: How do you see the changes influencing design?

A: A lot of projects that I work on are for retirees who want single-floor living. When we’re building first floors five to eight feet above grade, designing for this kind of accessibility is going to become very difficult. Aesthetically, we may see more modern buildings with flat or low-sloped roofs. And there will probably be a lot of parking underneath the first floor. In Maine, we love our classic style-shingle homes and many people won’t like the contemporary look. But I would personally like to see more progression in terms of the range of styles we accept here — and I relish a fresh challenge.

To learn about flood zone regulations in your area, visit your town’s website or search by address at

Rendering by: KW Architects