The houses built to withstand hurricanes

(Bloomberg) --Breezy Point is beautiful in the summertime, a quaint neighborhood sitting on a slim peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic just south of New York City.

In a storm, though, that dreamy setting can become a nightmare.

Breezy Point was devastated by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Flooding, high winds and fires destroyed more than 300 homes, with many more left damaged and unlivable. Now, seven years later, architect Illya Azaroff has designed and built a home there he says can withstand a storm even more powerful than Sandy, "maintaining operation, even if all else fails.’’

Welcome to the home of the future in a time of climate change. As weather gets wilder and less predictable, firms that design, construct or improve housing with storm safety and resiliency in mind are increasingly in demand, said Matt Belcher, a builder in tornado-prone St. Louis. It’s a powerful marketing message that cuts across the political divide, he said.

“The frequency and severity of the storms are increasing," said Belcher, who builds houses designed to withstand 140 mile-an-hour winds. "Whether people credit it to climate change or think it’s cyclical, it doesn’t matter if your house is destroyed. Either way, resiliency applies.”

In 2008, the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, an industry research group, created a set of construction standards that generally exceed local building codes, certifying that a home is likely to survive hurricane-force winds and rain.

The needle barely moved on the number of homes meeting the designation in a handful of hurricane-prone states from 1,122 in 2008 to 1,638 in 2014. By 2018, the number jumped ten-fold to 11,031 homes, and it’s moved to 12,530 in the first four months of 2019.

The "fortified" designation is provided by trained evaluators primarily based in Texas, Florida, the Carolinas and Alabama, though the institute is now expanding the numbers of states they serve. In some areas, the designation can help homeowners with insurance and renovation costs.

"When the consumer has a different perception of the risk, it changes the demands they make on home builders," said Roy Wright, the group’s leader and a former head of risk mitigation at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "The home building industry will respond to the market, they always do."

The Breezy Point design by Brooklyn-based Azaroff, who also serves as the New York disaster coordinator for the American Institute of Architects, keeps Sandy’s devastation in mind, from the bottom up:

  • The house is elevated more than 3-feet above average flood elevation, with open concrete posts sunk deep into the ground and vents that let flowing water easily escape underneath the house.
  • The walls and floor are made with concrete-filled forms made from polystyrene and recycled plastic that can withstand driving rain and 300-mile per hour winds.
  • It has fire-resistant fiber cement-board siding, and inflexible, interlocking polymer roof shingles locked in with screws. Safety glass in the windows can withstand a 9-pound piece of wood flying at 34 miles per hour.
  • And the roof is held in place with ultra-strong connectors.

Cost remains key for homeowners. The hurricane-strong house, as Azaroff has labeled it, is about 7% to 9% more expensive to build. But with energy and insurance savings, the upgrades should pay for themselves in 8-10 years, according to Azaroff.

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Home designed by Azaroff in Breezy Point, Queens. Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

While the Breezy point house is built to withstand hurricanes, architects elsewhere face other issues. Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska are the center of a region sometimes called Tornado Alley, and other times known as Hail Alley. Extreme weather there can can mean violently rotating winds that move in excess of 110 miles per hour.

Q4 Architects Inc., a Canada-based group, has designed a home that will not only keep residents safe during a tornado, but allow them to live at home for months, even if basic services are cut off.

At the house’s center is a concrete and steel reinforced space that includes the kitchen, bathroom, laundry and an emergency supply closet. There’s a cistern that captures rainwater and filters it, solar panels for electricity, a sun tunnel that can be opened or closed for natural light and Murphy beds.

A tornado can destroy a home in four seconds, said Jason Sampson, an architect at Canada-based Q4. “The initial ideal was to ensure some sort of comfortable living situation while disaster relief was put into place,’’ he said. “This could take months, so let’s make sure they have the right systems in place to live there."

Rima Taher, a civil and structural engineer who teaches at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, has published the textbook “Building Design for Wind Forces.” The strategies behind recent improvements in housing resiliency can be attributed to improved building codes based on research in wind engineering that started back in the 1960s, she said.

"We have more knowledge in this field now, and building codes and standards are stronger," Taher said by telephone.

Taher frequently gets calls for advice, she said, noting that a couple of important things to focus on are roof design and strong connections between walls, between the walls and the roof, and between the structure and its foundation. Taher advises "hurricane ties," or straps, to join the roof tightly to walls, and says roofs should be designed with multiple slopes with overhangs limited to less than 20 inches.

"The roof can be the first thing to go," she said.

Architects and builders are searching out materials designed for every environment, said Wright, the insurance institute chief executive officer. The group tests home designs in a giant wind tunnel that can simulate hurricanes, rain, hail and flying fire embers, he said.

Products made by some of the world’s largest businesses for years are increasingly coming into play, he said, as builders and architects move to meet consumer demands. A DowDupont Inc. roof membrane that keeps the indoors cooler is being tested in brutal heat in India. LafargeHolcim Ltd. makes a lightweight concrete cladding that was used on a shoreline museum in Miami to add strength to window casings and walls.

While few of these materials are new, they are more frequently being experimented with in designs for new homes in storm-prone areas.

But it’s not just new houses being worked on with extreme weather in mind. Older houses on the East Coast offer other opportunities for builders. In the Carolinas and on New York’s Long Island, local contractors have raised hundreds of houses six-to-eight feet higher within the past few years, taking advantage of government programs that popped up after major hurricanes.

Mike Rom’s company, Long Island House Lifting, now raises 45 to 50 homes a year at a cost of between $150,000 and $300,000 apiece.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, he said, “every other house is up in some neighborhoods." But it’s not just the big storms that are a problem, according to to Rom. Shoreline areas that used to see street flooding at most two or three times a year now see it monthly, he said.

Billy Ward, co-owner of AABC House Moving in Camden, South Carolina, used to raise only one or two homes a year. That’s changed in the wake of hurricanes Matthew, Irma and Florence in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

“We all talk about it," Ward said. “How things have gotten a lot worse."