The Water Will Come, but Not Here

Posted May 9, 2018 5:16 p.m. EDT

A 21st-century Atlantis-in-the-making is how many scientists think of Miami Beach. With a projected sea-level rise of 3 to 4 feet by the century’s end, huge chunks of the barrier-island city are expected to lie beneath the Atlantic Ocean. But Hany Boutros is staying.

In fact, Boutros, 43, a Detroit-area health care executive and real estate developer, has built a new 3,500-square-foot home in South Beach, the city’s most threatened neighborhood.

“I would be foolish if I didn’t take sea-level rise into consideration, but it’s not going to stop me from living the life I want,” he said, standing inside his Prairie Avenue home’s entryway. “I found a solution,” he added, motioning to the retractable automated stairway that connects a 9,400-square-foot open-air gated tropical garden and parking area with the three-bedroom house above it.

Designed by Miami architect Rene Gonzalez as the first in a series of luxury “elevated houses” around South Florida, it has been built to allow up to 10 feet of storm surge to safely flow underneath it.

“The house already went through a test when Irma hit,” Boutros said, referring to the hurricane that swamped greater Miami in September. It was reported that Irma’s 185-mph winds had largely spared the area, but it was a different story on the ground. Wind-driven rain flooded the ultramodern high-rises and art deco hotels alike; 2 feet of water sloshed through some neighborhoods, while others were left without electricity for weeks.

Back in Michigan, Boutros was poking around Facebook, desperate for a post-Irma update on how his new house had fared.

“I saw a nearby neighbor posting pictures of flooding and tree damage as she walked around,” he said.

Boutros messaged her, gave her the access codes to the control panels that essentially run his home and asked her to step inside it. The rest of the street had lost power, but his front gate opened, and the retractable staircase smoothly descended 10 feet on its system of pulleys and cables.

“Because I have a generator that turns on automatically, the house ended up being a shelter. I said, ‘Bring your friends, bring your kids, there’s hot water for showers — please use it!’ I had zero damages. It was as if Irma went around my house,” he said.

That was no accident, Gonzalez said. “Rather than fighting the situation, we have to create spaces that allow us to live in a way that is closer to the environment, closer to the way the Seminole Indians in Florida lived,” with their Chickee huts up off the ground on stilts, protecting against water and allowing ventilating breezes to blow through.

Gonzalez has taken that same approach to the glass walls of this home’s living room. They act as pocket doors, entirely sliding away to create another open-air space. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Gonzalez used glass sparingly. With the home’s overall cost at $1,700 a square foot, exposed and treated concrete dominates “with planes that just float, without gravity, if you will.”

“The walls don’t touch the floor. They go up beyond the ceiling, appearing to continue to the sky. It gives you the effect of infinite space.”

Miami artists also feature prominently. In the dining room, a massive sculpture by Sinisa Kukec resembles two golden raindrops plinking into puddles. One guest bedroom displays an abstract painting by Lynne Golob Gelfman, the other a drawing by Michele Oka Doner. Separate control panels allow guests to access these rooms and come and go on their own, even if other parts of the home remain locked.

While Gonzalez praised Miami Beach officials for tackling sea-level rise with a $500 million street-raising and pumping project (one that is being re-evaluated amid concerns that plans for further elevated roads may actually worsen flooding of adjoining homes and businesses in the short term), he said he was frustrated with many in the real estate community. Some architects seem happy to take their wedding cake-style McMansions and jack them up on stilts, he noted, regardless of what he calls the poor aesthetics. And some developers still seem to be in denial.

That much was clear in Jeff Goodell’s 2017 book “The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World.” Goodell wrote of cornering Jorge Pérez at an event honoring Oka Doner inside his namesake Pérez Art Museum Miami.

Oka Doner had already sold her Miami Beach home, convinced that it would soon be underwater. Pérez, one of South Florida’s largest condo developers, was more skeptical. Asked by Goodell if sea-level rise had altered his business thinking, he replied curtly that it hadn’t. Pressed, Pérez said, “In 20 or 30 years, someone is going to find a solution for this.” He added, “Besides, by that time, I’ll be dead, so what does it matter?”

For his part, Boutros said the rising sea wasn’t his only concern. Raised in Lebanon before he moved to Detroit to attend college, Boutros said he practically lived on Beirut’s shoreline. Sun-dappled Miami Beach was a homecoming of sorts, but he was aware of security issues. Hence the retractable staircase. “I’m not here 24/7,” he said. “How do we make sure there’s no access to the house?” With a chuckle, he added, “Plus, I wanted something out of James Bond, something sexy.” The same playfully louche theme carries through to his master bedroom, where a large doorless shower with transparent glass walls occupies the center of the room. This is not a home for anyone, or their overnight guests, who is bashful about disrobing.

“If someone is with you in this room and you’re not comfortable being naked with them, they shouldn’t be in this room,” Boutros said. “What’s the difference between standing naked in the middle of the room and being naked in bed?”

Boutros wasn’t waiting for a reply. He was already bounding up a staircase that led from his bedroom to a roof deck. Open on one side except for a barely there railing, it too was not for the cautious. Or anyone less than sure footed in high heels. Or anyone who’d had a drink or two. Or children. Or ... but Boutros waved off those concerns as well. “It’s my space. If I invite you up to the roof, I already know what you’re capable of handling.” His guests seem to have to pass an awful lot of tests just to get past the front door. “In a good way!” he said, laughing.

The roof setting made Boutros’ brazen enthusiasm more understandable. Partially shrouded by a tropical canopy, it admitted no sound but the chirping of birds.

In Michigan, Boutros works from 8:30 a.m. until 1 or 2 in the morning, so he can board a plane to Florida on Friday and remain through the weekend.

“When I wake up in Miami, my biggest worry is where I’m going to eat that night,” he said. That and, “Can I spend two hours at the beach?”