Above it all

Peter and Diana Shaw's home , elevated on a dozen round concrete-and-steel stilts, as seen from the shoreline of the Delaware River in Tinicum Township. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Peter and Diana Shaw's home , elevated on a dozen round concrete-and-steel stilts, as seen from the shoreline of the Delaware River in Tinicum Township. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

Peter Shaw loved his home beside the Delaware in Bucks County, even after floods destroyed it - three times. The latest rebuild goes with the flow.

Posted: February 22, 2014

If you ask Peter Shaw why he rebuilt his Bucks County house 100 feet from the Delaware River after it was destroyed by major floods - three times - be prepared to listen to him talk for a very long time.

But the bottom line is: Living next to the river is worth it.

And after awhile, it becomes clear that Peter, a financial investor, is confident that the latest version of his Tinicum Township house, designed on stilts by an architect and a structural engineer, is now pretty indestructible.

"I will never leave," Peter concludes about the house he shares with his wife, Diana, a doctor who still remains a "little nervous" about their proximity to the water.

It's hard not to understand Peter's passion while sitting in the dining area where the glass gleams with the reflected light from the snow and the nearby river.

And it doesn't take much to imagine the kayakers floating by and waving on those warm-weather evenings when the Shaws and their guests sit on the second-floor balconies that surround their contemporary house.

The Shaws' living quarters, at 1,700 square feet, are 121/2 feet above the ground, supported on a dozen round concrete-and-steel stilts. Only their kayaks are housed on that concrete-base ground floor, and the tiny third floor holds only the furnace.

The journey to their second-floor house started about 28 years ago, when Peter first saw a rundown cottage next to the river.

"I fell in love with it," said Peter, who had moved a lot when he was younger - starting in a suburb of Chicago and moving after his parents' divorce to places including Oak Park, Ill., and a town near the Columbia River in Washington state. He studied experimental psychology and mathematics at MIT and Stanford, taught at the University of Illinois, and later worked as a computer systems analyst at Comcast.

Peter bought the house and renovated it.

"I love living near the river," he said. "I believe it is natural for people to want to be near a body of water."

Soon afterward, he met Diana - who shares his interest in rivers as well as Buddhism - and in 1992, she moved in soon after they married. She settled into their waterside home and the couple filled the property with numerous small statues of Buddha. They went on to explore other rivers, too, including a recent trip on the Amazon.

By 1996, though, the Shaws' house honeymoon was up. A winter ice jam broke apart upstream, and the swell of water coming downriver invaded their house. Most of their furniture - being refurbished at the time - was not in the house, but their photos and mementos were destroyed, along with the air-conditioning/heating system.

Confident that such floods come only every 100 years or so, the couple remodeled their home. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan brought 5 feet of water into the first floor.

"We moved into rental housing and cleaned up, and bought new furniture to replace what had been destroyed," Diana said. They had been back in the house for only eight months when a tropical storm without a name destroyed everything in 2005.

A bulldozer came for what was left.

The Shaws decided to rebuild on the site - but in a way that prevented future damage, of course.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which now would have to issue the Shaws flood insurance, requires that a building on a site that has suffered multiple floods must be elevated at least 11 feet above the flood plain.

So the Shaws hired architect Shep Houston to work with structural engineer Skip Popoli.

"We wanted a real house and not a ranch on stilts . . . not a box with rooms opening off halls," Peter said.

For two years, the Shaws rented four houses. And in 2007, their home by the river was back.

The house is surrounded by balconies with transparent railings so the river view won't be obscured. The living-room area, the kitchen, and the dining area are one great room with no halls.

Of course, most of the living room area faces east toward the river. The kitchen, on the other side of the house, faces west toward a tree farm across the road - which the owner promised to never develop. The house includes two bedrooms and a study.

In the design process, Peter was adamant about 16-foot cathedral ceilings in the living room and guest bedroom, compared with eight-foot ceilings in the other rooms.

The exterior of the house is covered with cement board, which resembles wood but is far sturdier.

"Anything that breaks away can cause a dangerous projectile downriver," Houston said. "In this house, there are louvers in the walls of the first floor that open when the river floods, and the water flows right through the house."

Popoli said he designed the stilts to be round, unlike the square ones in houses near the Shaws', because they hold more weight. The house also is supported with steel girders, which eliminate the need for interior columns.

The house has been tested numerous times, including by Sandy, which left no damage. "The house is good," said Diana.

Still, Diana is cautious.

"I love it here, but in the first sign of trouble, I would grab my dog and head out of here," she said. Bandit, a little brown terrier, inches closer to his owner as an exit is discussed.

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