After Hurricane Sandy, a couple puts their Ranch-style home on stilts to avoid future floods

By Samantha Weiss Hills Nov 19, 2018, 9:30am EST

Photography by Max Burkhalter

When Maya Schindler and her husband moved across the country from Los Angeles to Long Island, New York, for work at a local university, Schindler had a grand vision for what the couple’s new home would be. She wanted a Victorian—something to renovate—that she could fill with modern furniture: Kartell meets towers, turrets, and dormers.

So, naturally, the couple ended up in a shingle-sided ranch-style home with crisp white interior walls—and the entire thing on stilts that seat it several feet off the ground. How? The story involves a hurricane, two renovations, and a government program (and no, this is not Two Truths and a Lie).

It was a bit of an accident that the couple found the home they ultimately ended up buying, Schindler explains; they looked at what she guesses must have been 60 houses, none of them to her taste. Then she called an area agent, who suggested the couple look in his neighborhood in the town of Brookhaven.

But she was hesitant to move further east—further away from New York City rather than closer to it. Ultimately, though, the agent convinced Schindler to simply take a look around, and instead of giving her a tour, he drew her a map for her to take in on her own. She was impressed with how open the neighborhood was, and with how different the houses looked from each other. This led to actual viewings, and the second home the agent showed her was the one.

“Nobody had lived in the house for a few years,” Schindler says. But she noticed that there were numerous windows, around 40. “I thought ‘that has to count for something!’” she adds, laughing. The house, which sits at the edge of a nature preserve, was originally built as a summer cabin, but there had been additions made over the years—and not in a particularly uniform way. As a result, the interiors were chopped up, and in need of a refresh.

In 2010 the couple made the leap and bought the house, renting a different one while they performed the renovation themselves. “The plan was to get the space right,” Schindler explains. “And the rule was that for anything above my shoulders, we would hire somebody. But anything under shoulder height I could do by myself.”

To remove the attic space and open up the ceiling, they did in fact hire someone, and the project also revealed original skylights that had been walled off, as if they were in a well, says Schindler. “We got into [the idea of] having a big, open living-cooking kind of place,” she adds. The couple redid the floors themselves, too. Then life in their new home commenced.

Just two years later, Hurricane Sandy barreled up the East Coast, striking the Northeast. Hearing that the storm surge would hit the area around their home along Long Island’s Great South Bay, they evacuated with their daughter, then just 11 months old, and the family dog.

“We had six inches of water in the house, which was not a lot,” says Schindler. “But it’s enough to ruin everything.” They were able to return to the house the day after the storm, but there was still knee-high water inside. The couple assessed the damage—and had no idea what they were in for as they tried to return the house to its pre-storm state.

They had the flood insurance mandated with their mortgage, so, luckily, they had a budget to fix the house. Again, they rented a place in the neighborhood to await renovations; this time hiring a contractor. Drywall had to be fixed, floors had to be replaced, and this time around they renovated the bathrooms. After four and a half months, things were back in working order and they moved in again.

Around this time, the state of New York announced a storm reconstruction project called New York Rising, which was billed as a “participatory recovery and resiliency initiative” established to provide assistance to New York State communities severely impacted by Hurricanes Sandy and Irene, and Tropical Storm Lee.

Eventually, Schindler and her family became eligible to participate. The decision to apply to take part in the program was a big one, as it meant they would need to raise their house above a prescribed level and spend time renting again, especially complex now that they had two children and had been settled for a few years.

“It complicated life,” Schindler explains. “But we decided to do it because it was a great opportunity to actually save this house, and to protect the environment around it.” It took a year to get approvals and begin construction in November 2016. At the same time, they decided to change the exterior of the home to be more in tune with the history of its location, visually and architecturally. That meant changing all the windows to be the same size and bringing back the red cedar siding.

Raising the house was a feat. “They literally went around with a jigsaw and cut out floors and raised the house without [them],” Schindler remembers, noting that, at the time, you could stand under the house. “Then they had to dig out the old foundation and dig in a new foundation. Everybody came to see it.”

They moved back in the following August, and Schindler pieced the home’s interiors together once more. Schindler describes her design approach as one that attempts to balance high and low—and centers on humble materials and forms. She credits the furnishings, mostly from Finland and Denmark, in her grandparents’ home as the beginning of her design education.

While living in Southern California, she amassed a small collection of vintage or antique mid-century furniture via thrifting and auctions (“10 years ago, when Craigslist was still working!” Schindler jokes). When she and her husband moved to the East Coast, that collection came with them: She estimates that it makes up 80 percent of what’s in their home today.

The couple’s high-low aesthetic is on full display throughout the home, from the living room’s Marshmallow Sofa by George Nelson, Barcelona Daybed, Eames Plywood Table—all found on Craigslist—to other buys from Ikea and Target. There’s whimsy in vintage Toucan Lamps designed by H.T Huang and timelessness in Schindler’s collection of wool blankets. Nothing takes itself too seriously, but everything has meaning and intention.

Schindler also has an affinity for lighting fixtures, a collecting hobby so apparent that the electrician that works on their home wound up at her door one day with a vintage Viscontea Pendant Light by Achille & Pier Giacomo Castiglioni he had found in another client’s dumpster. (It doesn’t work, but she hung it above the couple’s bed anyway.) Funny enough, the home has so much natural light that there’s no need for them during the daytime.

In many ways, Schindler’s views about design mirrors her house’s evolution: A home changes alongside its inhabitants and experiences the same events, whether traumatic or joyful, so its furnishings should also carry the weight of age, measured in patina or memories. “I really try to stick with things that we love and that we use as a family,” says Schindler. “I want things to not be too precious…[and to] grow with us.”