Your scariest visitors tonight might be Samara from the Ring, Ghostface from Scream or The Black Phone’s Grabber, but the weeks and months ahead could bring far scarier prospects to your door – from a “surprise hurricane” to a wildfire, earthquake or other disaster – with potentially life-changing impacts to your home and life. I hope the length of this article doesn’t scare you off! Feel free to skip to the relevant sections for your home or read the whole thing after the kids’ buckets and bellies are filled.
We can plan for Halloween “frights” with candy bowls and for hurricane season with some planning to reduce damage. Those of us living near fault lines can hope that our homes built to West Coast earthquake codes will fare better than those that skirted them in Turkey’s devastating quake last February. We hope too that a wildfire won’t sweep through our neighborhood, as it has in so many others, and wait for potential new standards to address this growing risk. They might not be enough!
As Timothy Archambault, Oppenheim Architecture’s director of the Americas, observed in a written response to my questions, “Building codes often provide a baseline for construction standards, but they may not always account for the full range of challenges presented by extreme weather events.” He should know! The Miami-based architect designs homes for clients in Florida and California, two disaster-prone regions.
In July 2022, the American Institute of Architects published its Resiliency in the Built Environment report asserting that meeting code does not ensure that a building will withstand the forces of nature. And as I wrote in this space two months later, some of those forces are intensifying.
Kathleen Lane, AIA’s climate action managing director is anticipating that the report will drive more resilient construction and educate more homeowners about its advantages. She’s already seeing builders incorporating more resilient features into their homes and communities, she shared in an email.
Babcock Ranch, which designed resilience into its Southwest Florida development after 2004’s Hurricane Charley devastated the region, came through last year’s Category 5 Ian with minimal damage and maximal buyer interest; this too will likely motivate more resilient new home construction as the market takes notice.
“Babcock Ranch demonstrates that designing for resilience has multiple benefits,” suggested Lindsay Brugger, vice president of urban resilience at the Urban Land Institute in an emailed interview. “Not only can resilience measures reduce the need for post-disaster repairs and minimize disruption, but they can also enhance a development’s marketability and reputation.” Savvy developers are seizing the opportunity, she reported, by implementing resilient design strategies to address local risks. To help them, ULI recently launched its Developing Resilience Toolkit. While created for the industry, it contains insights that can also help homeowners.
Natural disasters drive some of the greatest challenges of our lives. When you appreciate that building codes are written to help a building survive a disaster long enough for occupants to escape, you begin to appreciate the value of resilience planning to keep people get back into their homes sooner with less damage. That is particularly helpful for those also coping with medical and disability issues.
Costs and Benefits
“Conversations with homeowners have evolved as climate change concerns and extreme weather events become more pronounced,” Archambault commented. He’s seeing clients concerned about protecting their homes and investments. At the same time, they’re mulling the higher upfront costs of building for resilience, he shared. “It’s important to emphasize the long-term savings and protection from potential disasters,” the architect added. “There’s a growing understanding that investing in resilience can result in reduced insurance costs and increased property value.”
Hurricane and Tornado Resilience
Adding resilience features to your home may help you regain use sooner after a storm tears through your town. “For hurricanes, this may consist of impact-resistant windows that can withstand flying debris, reinforced roofing materials to prevent wind uplift, and secure anchoring systems to keep the structure intact during high winds,” AIA’s Lane advised. “Tornado resistance can be improved through reinforced wall and roof systems, including storm shelters or safe rooms within the house,” she added. Archambault recommended reinforced concrete or steel framing, elevating the home above flood levels and hurricane shutters to the list of options.
Brugger pointed to factors like dunes, below-grade stormwater drainage systems, deep foundations, elevated homes, and hurricane resistant windows, siding and shingles in one community that came through Superstorm Sandy well, and underground stormwater detention chamber, solar photovoltaic system and backup generators that helped another come through Hurricane Maria unscathed. While some of these resilient features are planned during the development and building phases, adding solar systems with backup batteries, safe rooms and new siding or roof materials can also be done as part of a home’s upgrades.
Since many storms bring flooding, interior materials that will better withstand this onslaught can also help a home rebound faster, and at lower cost. “For flood resilience, this often involves elevated foundations to prevent water infiltration, using flood-resistant materials for walls and flooring, and improved insulation to mitigate potential water damage and freezing issues,” Lane advised. In many flooding-prone regions of the country, porcelain tile can work well as a resilient floor and wall material. (That’s why so many shower stalls are clad in it.) It’s also heat and frost-resistant for exterior cladding.
As fire seasons grow longer and more intense, resilience solutions for homes and communities can increase survivability. “This can involve fire-resistant siding materials, non-combustible roofing materials like metal or tile, and ember-resistant venting systems that prevent embers from entering the home through vents or other openings.” This will help to prevent the house from catching fire. Lane also notes that clearing defensible space around the house of vegetation and other combustible materials can help slow the fire’s spread and aid firefighters in saving your home.
“Finally,” the AIA executive suggested, “hardening the home by making it more resistant to fire penetration. This can be done by installing fire-resistant windows and doors, sealing all openings around the house, and installing fire sprinklers.”
ULI also suggests fire-resistant landscaping design and materials and class A roofing, which can be made from several materials (including tile and metal) that all meet the highest fire-rating standard.
Earthquakes give very little or no notice of their arrival, so being prepared to manage on your own until emergency services can get to you can be lifesaving. (I included links to preparation guides in my Wellness by Design book’s online extras.) But there are changes you can make to your home to increase your resilience. ULI’s Brugger pointed to an all-electric San Francisco development with solar panels. One of the earthquake-related benefits of an all-electric home is eliminating the “risk of explosions and methane leaks that can stem from earthquake-damaged natural gas pipes,” she noted. Electrification is something any homeowner can achieve – and there are currently financial incentives for many to do so.
If you’re building a new home, you can employ the latest and best in earthquake resilience. “Construction methods should include reinforced foundations, shear walls, and structural bracing,” advised Archambault. “Incorporating base isolators or dampers can mitigate seismic forces. Using flexible, resilient materials in construction, such as steel framing or reinforced concrete, can enhance earthquake resistance,” he noted, adding for those who are buying a resale home or already have homes in seismic zones, “Proper seismic retrofitting of older homes is also important.”
There are numerous reports of major insurance companies pulling out of high risk markets like California and Florida, making the home buying process even more challenging for millions of Americans. But there are also some new insurance-related benefits for homeowners who add resilience enhancements to their properties.
“Insurance companies are increasingly offering incentives for proactive risk mitigation,” Archambault observed. “This includes discounts for homeowners who invest in technologies like Wi-Fi-connected leak detection systems or smart home security systems. These measures help reduce the risk of property damage and can lead to lower insurance premiums.”
One industry group has developed a set of resilience standards it calls FORTIFIED to increase a structure’s ability to withstand a hurricane or tornado. “Because of the reduced risk, homes with a FORTIFIED designation are eligible for discounts in several states,” according to Ian Giammanco, lead research meteorologist at the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety. “Homeowners should talk to their insurance agent to learn more about available incentives.”
Wildfires are another disaster that IBHS addresses, he added, and pointed to its Wildfire Prepared Home, a voluntary designation with mitigation actions homeowners can take to reduce their risk. “The California Department of Insurance (CDI) is currently reviewing insurers’ rate filings that include discounts mandated by CDI’s Safer from Wildfire framework,” Giammanco reported, mentioning that the state’s framework actions are based on IBHS research. “Homeowners may want to reach out to their insurance agent to learn more about available incentives.”
As AIA’s Lane observed, “It’s critical to recognize that resilience isn’t solely confined to natural hazards. It extends to encompass various stressors single-family homes and communities face, such as issues like affordable housing, aging structures, and rising sea levels. The conversation should also revolve around building resilient communities’ home to single-family residences, addressing resilience’s physical and socio-economic aspects.”
Archambault agreed: ““Community-level planning and preparedness are crucial for resilience, as disasters often affect entire neighborhoods. Collaborative efforts can result in stronger and more resilient communities.”
I agree with both of these architectural pros; when our neighborhood saw a shooting incident last weekend, having a community group to share information and comfort was invaluable.
Three years after a pandemic drove us into our homes, I added a bonus chapter to my 2020 Wellness by Design book published by Simon & Schuster. Including a section on resilience was a must!