Resilient Home Designs Protect Against Hurricanes While Lowering Emissions

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Just over five years ago, Hurricane Michael swept northward through the Gulf of Mexico and obliterated the seaside community of Mexico Beach in the Florida Panhandle. It was one of the first Category 5 hurricanes ever to hit Florida and it left a trail of devastation in its wake. In all, more than 800 homes in Mexico Beach were destroyed.

One that remained standing was owned by Bonny Pualson and built by Deltec Homes, a North Carolina company that specializes in resilient home design. When the notification came to evacuate, Paulson told the Associated Press, “I wasn’t nervous.” Her home survived the 160 mph winds with just a few shingles torn off the roof. Every house around hers was demolished by the onslaught.

On its website, Deltec says, “2023 might be the year when extreme climate became the ‘new normal’ — with record high temperatures, wind-driven wildfires, flooding rainstorms and disastrous hurricanes. Deltec’s round homes are built for extreme weather resilience — purposefully designed to work with nature, not against it.”

The round shape of her house allowed the wind to flow around it. A conventional house is like a barn door, almost daring nature to make it move. As an overheating planet leads to more frequent and more powerful storms, more of those traditional buildings are going to find nature is having the final word in this age-old battle.

Deltec, the company that built Paulson’s home, says that only one of the nearly 1,400 homes it has built over the last three decades has suffered structural damage from hurricane-force winds. The company puts the emphasis on building resilient homes, which involves more than just standing up to high winds. It also means using higher quality insulation that reduces the need for air conditioning, heat pumps for more efficient heating and cooling, energy efficient appliances, and rooftop solar.

“The real magic here is that we’re doing both,” chief executive Steve Linton told AP. “I think a lot of times resilience is sort of the afterthought when you talk about sustainable construction, where it’s just kind of this is a feature on a list. We believe that resilience is really a fundamental part of sustainability.”

Resilient Living In The Future

AP says more developers are building homes with an eye toward making them more resilient to extreme weather and friendlier to the environment. If solar panels are mounted on the roof, they are installed so snugly that high winds can’t get underneath them, which means the owners can enjoy clean electricity after a storm even if the electrical grid is knocked out. [Note: rooftop solar systems can only power a home if the proper devices have been installed to disconnect the home from the electrical grid during an outage.]

Buildings — both residential and commercial — are responsible for about 38% of all energy-related greenhouse gas emissions each year. Much of that carbon pollution comes from powering things like furnaces, hot water heaters, air conditioners, and lights. The rest comes from making construction materials like concrete and steel.

38% is far more than the emissions from the transportation sector, which means reducing emissions from the built environment should have a higher priority than electrifying cars and trucks. Recently, CleanTechnica reported on major breakthroughs that show great promise for reducing emissions from the cement and steel industries.

Hunters Point Features Resilient Homes

Other companies are developing entire neighborhoods that are both resistant to hurricanes and contribute less than average to climate change. Hunters Point in Cortez, Florida, consists of 26 completed houses with 30 more waiting to be built. All are LEED certified platinum, the highest level of one of the most frequently used rating systems for resilient buildings.

In Hunters Point, the developer, Pearl Homes, is raising all the homes to 16 feet (4.8 meters) above the level required by the local building code to protect them from flooding. The roads in the community are raised as well. Rainfall is directed away from the roads and onto ground where it can be absorbed. Steel roofs with standing seams allow solar panels to be attached so closely it is difficult for high winds to get under them. Each home is equipped with a residential storage battery that provides power when the grid is unavailable.

Pearl Homes CEO Marshall Gobuty told AP his team approached the University of Central Florida with a plan to build a community that doesn’t contribute to climate change. “I wanted them to be not just sustainable, but resilient. I wanted them to be so unlike everything else that goes on in Florida. I see homes that are newly built, half a mile away, that are underwater. We are in a crisis with how the weather is changing.”

Babcock Ranch Set The Trend For Floridians

Babcock Ranch is another sustainable, resilient community in South Florida. It features its own 150 MW solar power plant with 680,000 PV panels on 870 acres of land. There is also battery storage to supply the needs of the community after the sun sets.

The homes are better able to withstand hurricane winds because the roofs are strapped to a system that connects them to the foundations. Power lines are buried underground so they can’t be blown down by high winds. Many doors swing outward so when pressure builds up from the wind, they don’t blast open. Vents help balance the pressure in the community’s garages.

The development sold 73,000 acres (29,500 hectares) of its site to the state for wetland preservation. A team studied how water naturally flows through the local environment and incorporated its findings into the water management system for the community.

“That water is going to go where it wants to go. If you’re going to try and challenge Mother Nature, you’re going to lose every single time,” Kitson said. The wetlands, retention ponds, and native vegetation are better able to manage water during extreme rainfall, reducing the risk of flooded homes.

Resilient Architecture

Courtesy of Cary Bernstein, AIA LEED AP

Cary Bernstein, AIA LEED AP, is an architect with a thriving practice in San Francisco. She alerted us to the Associated Press story on resiliency, which is the central focus of her designs. “The fact that this is now mainstream news is fantastic,” she told CleanTechnica in an email.

“Resilient building design is important so long as the land remains habitable. With the area of habitable land shrinking, the big picture of land use and development is the first principle. Comprehensive considerations for the landscape, such as wetland and habitat preservation and restoration, should precede discussions about building technology. The AP article shows that resiliency considerations are critical when designing a house. This should be heartening for individuals who want to know ‘What can I do?’ and who are otherwise overwhelmed by all that must be done at larger scales.

“It’s expensive to be resilient but more expensive not to be resilient. Public policy needs to address inequities so that all people have an equal chance as climate events increase. Building codes are minimum standards — like getting a C on a test. Exceeding code standards should be everyone’s aspiration whenever possible, even though this can be hard to achieve.

“Deltec’s pre-fabrication process is a very good sustainable approach. Using factory-built housing does a better job of managing waste and reducing time on site — fewer truck trips, fewer commuting trips by builders, better supply chain management, and so forth.

“There is a lot of wisdom in vernacular construction which addressed local climate conditions before advances in technology. For a long time, technology allowed us to ignore climate by providing an artificial — even if more comfortable and healthy — personal environment. The big picture is that single family homes in themselves are not sustainable, even if desirable. Increased density and better land use is the future.”

Bernstein ended her thoughts by saying, “cultural change and expectations must accompany technological changes for a resilient future.”

The Takeaway

I was taken aback by Cary Bernstein’s assertion that single family homes are not sustainable. Certainly in America the single family home has a sacrosanct place in our culture, partly because of developments like Levittown, a planned community built in 1947 to house American servicemen returning from World War II. That community was a precursor to the suburbs that have spread across the American landscape from sea to shining sea since then.

Deltec and Pearl Homes and Babcock Ranch all embrace the single family home model, but while they are resilient, are they sustainable? Is the future more urban settings with lots of public transportation, green spaces, and fewer cars? The answer may be yes, which triggers a re-examination of where and how we should live as the stresses of an overheating planet multiply. It is important to ask those questions now before we spend billions building new housing in future flood plains.

Mother Nature is an implacable foe of anything that degrades the environment. We would do well to keep resiliency in mind when designing the structures that will serve humanity in the future.


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