Playing by the Rules

Company Town
A roof-top living area is one way to add space to a house without exceeding height restrictions. Barnes Coy Architects

   The South Fork is the ideal place to build your dream house, right? Well, yes, but there are restrictions up the kazoo about how to go about it. Each town and village has it own regulations, not to mention various agencies that weigh in on whether you can build that artist’s studio/dock/heliport — take your pick — or not. Looking down on your project from above are planning boards, zoning boards, building departments, boards of trustees, and natural resource departments all ready to dampen your dreams.

   But Hamptons habitués, from homeowners to those they employ to build their fantasy homes, are nothing if not creative. And, more often than not, it takes creative solutions to overcome pervasive restrictions.

   Take height restrictions. If you talk to Chris Coy of Barnes Coy Architects in Bridgehampton, expect him to throw around the word “stupid” a lot when discussing East Hampton Town’s height restrictions, which are limited to 32 feet for a pitched roof and 25 feet for a flat roof. Mr. Coy is upset that the apparatchiks who oversee this are essentially dictating the type of architecture being designed. Oceanfront houses are allowed 42 feet above sea level, but if your property is already at, say, 19 feet, you’ve only got 23 feet to play with. Ditto if you’ve raised the floor to prevent flooding.

   “It’s forcing people to do pitched roofs,” said Mr. Coy. “They’re not supposed to; they’re a planning board, not an A.R.B [architectural review board]. . . . It creates bad architecture. It’s unbelievably stupid. It has to be changed. . . . These are building department people, the last people you want dictating architecture.”

   In Southampton Town, where height restrictions can reach 32 feet, “It permits much more freedom in architectural design,” he said.

   But all is not lost, even in East Hampton. Architects including Mr. Coy and his partner, Rob Barnes, have figured out a way to give a luxurious spin to low-slung flat roofs: roof terraces. Essentially extra rooms, without ceilings, these aeries offer an entertainment area where residents can gather to catch unobstructed breezes, sunsets, and often water views.

    But, this being the zoning-mad Hamptons, there is, of course, a catch: Handrails are included in total building height, “probably because they don’t want you to do it,” according to Mr. Coy. So, Barnes and Coy cleverly drop down the roof height in places that can withstand an eight-foot ceiling. Think: bathrooms. The architects cluster bathrooms together and use the sunken area as the floor to the roof terrace.

    Let’s not forget lot coverage restrictions. Creative solution number one: walkout basement, which literally means you can “walk out on grade,” or in laymen’s terms, enter and egress through an outside door, not necessarily through the house. “We’re almost always doing them now,” said Mr. Coy. These erstwhile basements are called “lower-level space” in real estate parlance.

    We’re not talking about squat, dank cellars. These spaces often lead out to terraces and boast 10 to 13-foot ceilings, full-height doors, fireplaces, and curtain walls of glass. If the land doesn’t provide a natural contour for placing them in, “we create it with a sunken courtyard,” said Mr. Coy. More good news: They stay cool during otherwise hot days. “It gives you more allowable square footage because basements don’t count as part of lot coverage,” said Mr. Coy. Owners are using them to put in a bar, pool tables, even a second dining table. “You don’t even know you’re in a basement.”

    Homeowners are also being allowed to put apartments in their basements, according to the designer and builder Michael Mensch of Michael Mensch Design in Sag Harbor, “except in East Hampton Town,” he said. It all stems, he said, from movements in wealthy communities countrywide providing affordable housing for service workers. “It still looks like a single-family residence” from the outside. 

    When it comes to coverage restrictions, Mr. Mensch, who considers himself a modernist, claims that the open plans in modern houses allow for the “feeling” of more space. When the kitchen, dining room, and living room share their space, “You can save a good deal of square footage.” This is a feat more difficult to pull off in a traditional house with its “symmetrical arrangements of glass and form.”

    “You can make a modern house have the same feeling of volume as a traditional house twice the size,” he said. Another way he lowers square footage is to reduce the size of bedrooms. “Are bedrooms a destination?” he asked rhetorically. “As long as they have decent light and views and doors going outside, they don’t have to be large.”

    Houses are only half the equation of a Hamptons property, landscapes being the other half. And, of course, umpteen restrictions apply. Landscape architects have many tricks up their sleeves to create pastoral landscapes where even the types of plants allowed are dictated. Many owners, unaware that a percentage of natural vegetation is required to remain undisturbed on their land (the number varies with municipalities), have “over-cleared” their properties. (Ironically, the trio of flora that has come to represent the South Fork’s manicured landscape are all non-native: privet, boxwood, and hydrangeas.)

    Landscape professionals such as Michael Derrig, owner of Landscape Details, are called in to “revegetate” the area by planting from the dozens of native species listed in local natural resource department handbooks. One native species used in revegetation is the blueberry bush. Once planted thoughtlessly on a grid, artistry has become paramount with landscapers “creatively laying them out so there’s an aesthetic to it,” according to Mr. Derrig. The challenge to landscapers is to educate their clients that natural habitats can be more beautiful than “frou frou ornamentals.”

    When dealing with coverage issues — there are certain things that contribute to the coverage limit (buildings, driveways, etc.) — Mr. Derrig might lay down a pine needle path or gravel terrace, both of which don’t count as coverage, thus turning a restriction into a “design opportunity.” He’s even used something called Grasscrete (grass pavers), a more bucolic answer to driveways and parking areas.

    Pools are another item that can be manipulated for the better to conform to restrictions. Mr. Mensch is fond of placing them next to a house, so that the house, itself, becomes part of the pool enclosure. An added boon to this way of thinking is that “it compacts coverage and expands vistas so that the remaining lot looks as natural as possible.”