Sparks

Hurricane-proof houses

 By RP Siegel

While much is being said and done about measures to reduce the worst impacts of climate change, at the same time, a lot of thought is going into preparing for it. One example is the construction of hurricane-proof buildings…

(Cover photo by www.inhabitat.com)

A while ago we ran a story about the science of weather, and how modern forecasting has saved many lives by warning people to get out of the way of approaching storms. Once those storms have passed, however, people will return, hoping to find their homes and businesses still standing.

With the frequency and severity of major storms increasing due to warming oceans, it’s no surprise that this question is getting renewed attention. Whether it’s new building designs, or new materials and accessories that will make a structure better able to withstand an onslaught of wind and water, you will not find any shortage of suppliers, ready and eager to provide robust alternatives.

Some examples of precautions that can be taken to protect an existing home include: heavy duty doors, roof clips, window shutter systems and garage door fortifications. You might be surprised to know that the garage door is one of the most vulnerable spots in a house during a hurricane. If it should blow off, a high pressure wind surge could easily follow and blow off the roof. Other helpful accessories include whole house tie-downs, concrete cloth and interior safe rooms.

If you’re building from scratch, you might consider insulating concrete forms as an alternative to timber frame construction.

SEE MORE: The science of weather by RP Siegel

Weather

As for the design of the home, there are many examples. A number of hurricane-resistant selections can be seen here, ranging from domes that are shaped to shed the wind, to concrete and steel structures, to homes that are raised above the level of expected storm surge. Others have openings going through them to reduce the net force of the wind.

For those on a budget, there are a number of prefabricated homes available. Many of these are quite elegant, with prices ranging anywhere from $34,600 to $395,000. One, described as the “Cocoon” by Autonomous Tents, has an elongated, rounded shape, like its namesake and can withstands winds up to 90 mph. Others, like Bamboo Living’s Zen 360 or the high-end Classic Deltec have survived category five (173 mph) storms.

New materials are being developed all the time with the promise of the kind of strength and durability needed to withstand hurricane force winds. But how do you put that to the test?

Carmakers deliberately crash cars into concrete walls to verify their safety performance. Can builders do the same? The answer is yes, they can, thanks to an amazing test arrangement developed in a public-private partnership between RenaissanceRe, WeatherPredict Consulting, and the International Hurricane Research Center at Florida International University in Miami.

Deltec Homes hits 45 years without losing a home to high winds

Called the RenaissanceRe Wall of Wind (WOW), it is, in essence, a giant fan system capable of replicating Category 4 Hurricane winds, upwards of 130 mph, along with rain on full-scale residential structures and building components. The WOW consists of six modular steel rectangular units housing Chevrolet ZZ502 Big Block crate engines. Each engine drives two counter-rotating 80-inch propellers creating a cross-sectional wind field 24 feet wide by 16 feet high.

The facility has been used to determine things like, what type of roofing tiles hold up best in high winds (answer: concrete), and what types of structure, called vortex suppression technologies, can disrupt wind to keep it from tearing off roofs. Other elements include roof-to-wall connections, and mitigation of water intrusion. These results have been incorporated into building technology since the Wall of Wind’s inception in 2007.

Back in 2010, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the movie actor Brad Pitt visited the Lower 9th Ward in one New Orleans’ poorest sections, which had been decimated by the storm, and vowed to do something about it. He started the Make It Right Foundation with the express mission of rebuilding the Lower 9th. Pitt asked architects from around the world to submit designs for affordable, energy-efficient houses, designed to withstand any repeat performances of Katrina and other storms. Among these were Shigeru Ban from Tokyo, Constructs from Ghana, Adjaye Associates out of London, and US firms Pugh+Scarpa, KieranTimberlake, and Morphosis. All have contributed designs for these exceptional houses, all of which have been certified LEED Platinum. The homes have been designed to withstand winds of 140 mph.

The rebuilding of the lower 9th Ward in New Orleans with hurricane-proof houses

Construction costs run about 15 percent higher than those for similarly sized homes in the area, however, energy costs average only around $37 per month due to such as features as extensive use of closed cell foam insulation, solar and geothermal power, and advanced high velocity HVAC. Many of the homes have unique designs, most of which are elevated to avoid flooding. One home, built on buoyant Styrofoam chassis, is even capable of floating on a tether, where it essentially becomes a boat at a dock. A number of special features found in these homes include wind-shedding roofs, super-strong walls (built with 2 x 16″ lumber), rooftop escape hatches, and moisture resistant drywall.

Moving forward, there can be little doubt that our homes and buildings will continue evolve to meet the requirements of a changing world. Whether that means improved energy, adapting to our ever-expanding array of electronic technologies, or becoming more robust against extreme weather, you can rest assured that some of the best minds are busy working on solutions. The question is, can we identify and implement the needed changes quickly enough to save the many lives that might depend on them?

about the author
RP Siegel
Skilled writer. Technology, sustainability, engineering, energy, renewables, solar, wind, poverty, water, food. Studied both English Lit.and Engineering at university level. Inventor.