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Indestructible Homes: How Disaster Resistant Building Practices are Mitigating Losses
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Following Hurricane Michael little remained in Mexico Beach Florida. Destruction was the only obvious landscape feature surrounding this beautiful beach community. In surveying photos of the damaged community, however, one thing sticks out. In the middle of the massive destruction stands one large house, known as the Sand Palace. This home is a three-story, four-bedroom, and four-and-a-half-bath vacation rental. The obvious question remains… why did this home survive the massive storm while the others did not?
The answer is simple. The construction of this home involved one primary goal… hurricane resistance. The purpose of this article is to review how home design and construction practices can help to mitigate potential damage in the event of a natural disaster.
Hurricane Resistant Home Design
The design of a hurricane-resistant home depends on many factors that should be considered together in order to maximize the hurricane resistance of a home. Below are a few design practices.
House stilts – stilts provide additional stability for a home in addition to protection from flooding and storm surges. Stilts, if designed correctly, can also provide ventilation that minimizes wind resistance to a home.
Cement pilings – cement remains one of the strongest and most durable building materials. Cement pilings provide the strongest potential foundation to a home. While wood can be a useful material, it is much more susceptible to damage from water and humidity than concrete. In a strong storm, damage to the foundation often leads to complete destruction of a home. Cement pilings maximize a foundation’s strength and minimize the potential damage in a storm.
Stormproof windows and doors – storm windows and exterior doors help protect potentially vulnerable points to a home in a storm. Storm windows have double panes and airtight seals, while storm doors contain heavy metal or other durable materials. These considerations maximize the security of these potential weak points in a home.
Strong roof shingles – roofs can also be vulnerable points in a storm. If a roof fails, then it puts negative pressure on the rest of a home, which could lead to the complete failure of the home’s support structure. To maximize the strength of a home’s roof, it needs to be anchored through the walls to the foundation. In addition, a strong ‘impact-resistant” roof shingle material should be used to maximize the integrity of the roof.
Storm shutters – hurricane shutters can be one of the most impactful and simple upgrades a homeowner can make in order to increase a home’s resistance to hurricanes. These shutters are so effective that several insurance companies will offer premium discounts for homeowners that install these devices in their home. When a window fails in a home it leads to a dramatic increase in the further damage caused by a storm to the home and its contents. Typically, these shutters are made from metal or polycarbonate plastic, which helps protect a home in the event of a strong storm.
Wind Resistance – certain techniques exist to direct heavy wind load away from the roof and walls and toward the home’s foundation. These practices include the use of tie-down straps, hurricane plates, and clips, cable ties, or other tie-down products.
This house plan was created for social charity ORLI’s (Operation Resilient Living & Innovation Plus, LLC ) Global Design Ideas Competition, aimed at helping neighborhoods affected by Hurricane Sandy.
Architects and engineers consider these factors when building a new home in order to maximize its resistance to storms. For existing homes, upgrades can significantly improve a home’s resistance to storms. In fact, homeowners with homes inland should consider these features in their homes, particularly in areas susceptible to strong thunderstorms, tornados, or hail.
Drawbacks and Benefits of Hurricane Resistant Homes
The most obvious negative factor associated with building or upgrading a hurricane-resistant home involves the cost. Most experts indicate the cost of a hurricane-resistant home is 15% – 20% more than a typical home. Despite the cost, however, studies show that over time, the improvements will make an impact.
In fact, a recent study completed by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Risk Center and the National Center for Atmospheric Research focused on storm-related building code improvements in coastal Florida. This research showed that homes built in coastal areas of Florida, after the implementation of the code improvements, suffered 64 percent less damage than homes built prior to the code improvements. The study used realized insured loss data across 10 years from more than 1 million homes. Loss data for the study included seven hurricanes, three of which were Category 3 or higher. Therefore, it is clear that the implementation of hurricane-resistant construction practices has a direct impact on potential damage losses.
As noted above, research clearly indicates that hurricane-resistant building practices lead to a decrease in losses to homeowners and insurance companies alike. Many insurance companies offer discounts between 5% and 35% for storm-resistant changes, such as storm-resistant shutters and new strong roof components.
Other Disaster Resistant Building Practices
While hurricane and storm-resistant building practices can protect a home from the hazards associated with a hurricane, tornado, flood or thunderstorm, other natural disasters exist. Homeowners in certain parts of the country need to think about disasters such as earthquakes and fires. Most notably in California where the potential for earthquakes and wildfires is prevalent.
In a similar vein to storm-resistant construction practices, both earthquakes and fires have specific design and construction practices that help in the event of a disaster. For example, below is a diagram showing the dos and don’ts of fire-resistant building practices.
Homeowners should know the potential hazards associated with their home’s location and then determine which actions can make the most significant impact on the protection of their home. Contractors and builders in different parts of the country specialize in various building techniques that consider the hazards unique to those parts of the country.
State by State Building Codes
Each state, however, uses its own rules to regulate building practices. Insurance Broker, Willis Towers Watson, recently published ratings from the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) after it released the latest edition of “Rating the States”. This is an assessment of residential building code and enforcement systems for life safety and property protection in hurricane-prone regions. Virginia and Florida are two states with the more stringent storm-related building codes. However, homeowners should not rely on state building codes to protect their homes from natural disasters.
In considering making improvements to a home, owners need to consider the image of the Sand Palace home after Hurricane Michael. The destruction surrounding the Sand Palace should remind us that home design and construction matter. When it comes to the protection of life and property from natural disasters, small improvements in home design and building practices can make a significant impact.