SULLIVAN'S ISLAND — When Huiet and Helen Paul lost their beachfront home to Hurricane Hugo in 1989 — just as they were finishing up a $175,000 renovation — they didn't just rebuild. They rethought.
And the resulting product was a unique coastal home, a concrete dome that appears to bubble out of a sand dune.
As hurricane season officially starts Friday, it remains to be seen whether this home and others along the coast might be put to the test.
Of course, the house's construction was a sort of fluke: The Pauls just happened to have a son, George, whose business, Thermospheric Structures, already had built several dozen concrete structures around the country, mostly for industrial use.
George's brother Tom said the family was enthusiastic about rebuilding in a very different way, "especially after losing a home to a hurricane."
Their new 3,700-square-foot home cost about $1 million shortly after the storm (about $1.8 million today). The family recently finished an extensive cosmetic renovation to spruce it up for its second owner and it's on the market for $4.995 million.
"We are not going to say in our marketing that this is a hurricane-proof house," Tom Paul said. "But it is designed with that idea in mind."
'Eye of the Storm'
Called the "Eye of the Storm," the innovative house also was the creation of architect X Dilling of Isle of Palms and a structural engineer who vouched for its solidity.
Dilling said she and George Paul originally thought about a circular design but had some doubts.
"He came to my office, and we're sitting in there, then he said, 'You might think I'm crazy, but round is not the way to go, but oval," Dilling said, "I reached behind me on the shelf and picked out a shell. When you think about structures, they're kind of shells. I picked up an oval shell and asked, 'Maybe this is what you're looking for?' And he said, 'Yes, that's it.' "
"When you go back to natural things, you're always in the right place."
Dilling helped design an enormous vinyl airbag.
The construction involved inflating that house-sized balloon, which then was sprayed on the inside with urethane insulating foam, according to accounts from the time. That was followed by a steel re-enforcing grid, followed by concrete and urethane insulation on the outside, which in turn was coated with a synthetic stucco.
The recessed windows can be covered by hurricane shutters designed to withstand 150 mph winds. The ground floor features several large openings, which offer shaded parking and a way for a storm surge to pass through.
Michael Royal, one of original owners' 17 grandchildren, noted its unique shape means there's no roof that can blow off.
"This is monolithic," he said. "There are no shingles. There are no seams. There's nowhere for high winds to get a purchase."
Last year, Collins Engineers Inc. inspected the house and found it's in "satisfactory structural condition," and "No evidence of structural distress was observed at the concrete dome structure."
Dilling said she cannot say the house is hurricane proof, but added, "If there's anything hurricane resistant, it's that dome."
Royal even invited a television crew to ride out a recent storm there.
Shortly after its construction, Structural Engineer Rick Vognild of the Southern Building Code Congress, told The Washington Post the home's aeronautical design could withstand hurricane-force winds.
"It sounds pretty adequate if you can afford it, and it pleases you," he told the paper, adding that such a design "might not be for the mass market."
Timothy Mays, a civil and environmental engineering professor at The Citadel, said there's no definitive listing of which South Carolina homes are built best to withstand storms, but the dome's aerodynamic shape and concrete construction are "awesome" as far as handling high winds.
Any concern may focus more whether the curved openings at the bottom are large enough to allow a storm surge with waves to pass, he said, adding, "If you put a load down there, it can slam into that and take out the whole show. That would be the concern.”
Inspiration from the beach
The home's design arose from aesthetic considerations as well as structural ones.
The facade facing Marshall Boulevard has just a few windows tucked into an elliptical recess, as well as a curving stair leading around to the main entrance on the side.
The facade facing the beach is far more open, drawing a visitor's eye toward the ocean with more windows and porches that blur the interior and exterior.
Tom Paul said the house's white coloring and curves, which extend to the interior walls as well, give him the sense he's in the dunes.
"It makes you feel like you're on the beach except you have all the comforts of air conditioning, shade and lemonade."
The interior has an open feel: about half of its first and second floors feature spaces that open onto each other. The bedrooms, bathrooms and closet spaces are huddled on the end toward the street.
While the 29-year-old house still looks very futuristic, parts of it had become dated. A recent renovation involved redoing the concrete floors to give them a decorative concrete finish that blends well with the white concrete walls.
As with most major renovations, the bathrooms and kitchen were redone, and Royal picked out new doors and light fixtures that replaced more conventional looking ones that had seemed out of place in a house that seems modern despite age.
Interior designer Danielle Thompson and builder Chris Brace helped shape its new look, including a Japanese soaking tub with a view of the Atlantic Ocean.
But for most people, the outside of the house is all they will see.
"There's a lot of interest about this house," Royal said, "so there are always people stopping by and taking pictures."
Of course, the Pauls were far from the only family to suffer the loss of their home during Hurricane Hugo. They are apparently among the only ones who rebuilt in such a novel way.
Why didn't more people follow their lead?
"That's a good question," Dilling said. "I wonder about that."