Home Construction: Built to Endure Hurricanes
As increasingly powerful hurricanes move across the Atlantic and through the Gulf of Mexico, Florida residents in places like Mexico Beach have to make tough decisions on how to keep their homes safe each hurricane season.
The Federal Emergency Measures Act (FEMA) has newer guidelines for Coastal Construction aimed at protecting homes from severe weather, and the state of Florida’s building codes in the southern and central areas of the state are also notoriously stringent.
With this in mind, many homeowners are turning to architects and builders who bring smart resilient designs and materials to the table, in order to protect their investment.
In October 2018, Hurricane Michael made landfall in Mexico Beach. Michael was the third-strongest storm to ever hit the United States, with winds exceeding 155 miles per hour and a storm surge of up to 14 feet.
When it was over, communities had been leveled, with insurances losses in Florida exceeding $1.25 billion. But a few surviving houses caught the eye of Architectural Digest, the New York Times and other media outlets around the world, seemingly untouched by Michael’s destruction.
What made these houses different? And what can we learn from them as the prevalence and severity of coastal storms increases?
The owners of this house in Mexico Beach had their home designed with ‘the big one’ in mind, and they got to test its construction almost right away. They considered every detail and went above and beyond Florida building codes where possible. While state codes for the area only require construction to withstand 120 mile per hour winds, this house was built for 250 mph winds instead.
From stairs and ground-level siding designed to tear away without damaging the home, to additional reinforced concrete at each corner of the building, the so-called ‘Sand Palace’ boasts:
- Poured insulated concrete walls.
- 40-foot pilings.
- Steel girders from one side of the house, through the roof, to the other side.
- Hurricane-proof windows and doors.
- Small soffits to limit the potential for lift during high winds.
- Narrow balconies and porches facing the beach.
- A 4-sided ‘hip-roof’ that better withstands high winds in comparison to 2-sided designs.
- Fiber cement siding on upper floors, instead of vinyl.
While the homeowners admit they had to eliminate a few balconies and windows—common features in Florida beachfront properties—from the design during construction, these sacrifices ultimately proved worthwhile when their house was still standing after the hurricane had passed.
Cape San Blas
Down the coast from Mexico Beach, in Cape San Blas, Ezra Smith designed a home with deep pilings reinforced with steel rebar to provide stability when the storm hit. Smith also used double insulated concrete forms (ICF) for the walls.
ICF, like Fox Blocks, starts with lightweight polystyrene and then gains strength from placed concrete. It is the building material that architects and engineers increasingly turn to for homes meant to withstand extreme weather and hurricanes. ICF can stand up against winds over 200 miles per hour, and the additional insulation means the concrete cures even stronger than standard concrete forms.
As with the Mexico Beach and Cape San Blas homes, ICF houses are reinforced with rebar and steel hurricane straps that secure the roof trusses. Designing with this continuous load path in mind holds the structure in place, from the walls to the roof and down into the pilings. These two houses are an excellent example of this, built to move the load of hurricane-force winds thru the roof into the walls below.
FEMA also highlights a number of other measures to consider when designing for hurricanes. These include:
- Drain tiles and a submersible pump to redirect overland water and groundwater away from the house.
- Backflow valves on the main drainage pipe to prevent water entering the home.
- Hurricane clips to connect the walls and roof.
- Secure sheathing using glue and nails to attach the roof to the decking, and additional nails for the trusses and decking.
It’s true the cost of building a maximum ‘hurricane-proof’ house is more than the price of building one according to minimum Florida building codes.
However, there are ways to protect your home without breaking the bank. By building your home with a product like ICF, you can get extra protection from hurricanes for an amount closer to your budget while also enjoying the cost savings associated with lower cooling bills. It is worth the minor upfront investment to protect yourselves and your home while saving on your energy bills monthly.
While living on the beach may be the dream, it’s important to ground that dream in reality. For more information on advances in building disaster-resistant homes, visit the Fox Blocks website.