Builders finding ways to make homes stand up to Mother Nature’s fiercest outbursts

Homes in the Links at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania were designed with high insulation levels to keep out drafts and withstand natural weather disasters such as hurricanes and tornadoes.

Photo: High Performance Homes

A movement in the home-building industry to adapt to risks of climate change is gaining momentum, promising new houses that are tougher and more able to bounce back from extreme weather events.

Although much attention has focused on green building practices, resilient-design strategies take the concept of building efficiently a step further with a proactive approach to creating durable homes that can withstand almost anything Mother Nature throws at them.

Unusual weather patterns, such as January’s historic East Coast blizzard and a rare tornado outbreak in late December in parts of the South and Midwest, highlight the vulnerability of residential structures.

A 2014 climate change survey by Munich Reinsurance America, a major provider of property and casualty reinsurance, found that 63 percent of Americans plan to fortify or have already fortified their homes to protect themselves from severe weather events. Forty-seven percent would consider moving away from hazard-prone areas, and a similar portion have purchased or plan to buy an additional insurance policy, such as flood or earthquake insurance.

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According to the Resilient Design Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Vermont, resilient design is “the intentional design of buildings, landscapes, communities and regions in order to respond to natural and man-made disasters and disturbances as well as long-term changes resulting from climate change, including sea-level rise, increased frequency of heat waves and regional drought.”

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to creating a resilient home – solutions vary from region to region. For example, siding could be formulated to be resistant to moisture and freeze-thaw in the North or for resisting hail and flying storm debris in the South.

High Performance Homes, a custom builder in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, has taken several steps to ensure its zero-energy homes are resilient to fluctuating weather patterns. The company was selected in 2015 by the U.S. Department of Energy as a Housing Innovation Award winner.

Kiere DeGrandchamp, president of High Performance Homes, said the structural insulated panels that encase his homes provide a superior wall assembly that can better tolerate the effects of extreme weather and resist damage from fire, mold and water.

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“If you want to build a house on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, like in Ocean City, to hold up to hurricane-force winds – or pretty much anywhere with high-wind restrictions – these panels will stand up,” he said. “Because these panels have such a high thermal mass, extreme heat and cold don’t affect the home as much as with a conventionally built, code-constructed house.”

Last year, Mike and Brenda Scyphers moved into their new home at the Links at Gettysburg, a High Performance golf course community in Pennsylvania.

“When we first came across the High Performance Homes and saw the construction techniques and the options available, we were very excited because of the energy savings and structure of the homes, and also because of the fact that they are much more positive in terms of the impact on the environment,” Mike Scyphers said.

On a cold and windy day, they don’t have to worry about air leakage in their home, thanks to high insulation levels and tight construction.

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“We certainly don’t have the draftiness in this house that we had in our old home,” Scyphers said.

Concept homes showcasing the inherent advantages of resilience and sustainability offer a preview of the possibilities for building a home that can absorb and rapidly recover from a disruptive event.

For example, college students from the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., constructed a low-energy, solar-powered, storm-resilient home for coastal communities, which won the 2015 U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon. Called the SU+RE House (for “sustainable” and “resilient”), it is based on three principles: Use less energy through smart design, generate all energy needed through renewable solar electric and be capable of providing power during electrical outages.

Pardee Homes, a member of the TRI Pointe Group, is also building homes with durability in mind.

Klif Andrews, Pardee’s Las Vegas division president, pointed out that in Nevada, this is accomplished with everything from sturdy exteriors of concrete and stucco to drought-resistant landscaping using high-efficiency irrigation.

Pardee’s two concept homes, billed as Responsive Homes, debuted Jan. 18 at the National Association of Home Builders’ International Builders’ Show in Las Vegas.

“We don’t have wood details that are going to dry out, crack or age over time,” Andrews said.

“These homes use net-zero electricity. They generate 100 percent of their electricity needs through solar panels. They also have high-efficiency irrigation and drought-resistant landscaping. A lot of permeable surfaces allow rainwater to penetrate through to the ground rather than run off.”

Smart sensors on the roofs can detect rain and communicate with the lawn’s irrigation system to conserve water.

At the California Science Center in Los Angeles, a tiny home on display through Tuesday presents a novel way to showcase innovative plastic building products that can improve durability and ease maintenance while saving homeowners money on energy bills.

Richard Skorpenske, director of advocacy and sustainability at Covestro, formerly known as Bayer MaterialScience, was a member of the building and construction team for the 170-square-foot portable structure.

The building envelope enables the miniature home to withstand wind shear. Insulation inside and out adds strength and resilience to the walls, while solar shingles reduce dependence on a power grid. Plastic abounds in everything from decorative touches to pipes.

“Of course, the one obvious thing plastics bring is durability and long life of the product,” Skorpenske said. “It can survive in elements and maintain functionality. . . . The trim does not rot. The vinyl siding will not deteriorate with sunlight or aging. The double-paned windows have plastic window frames. The plastic pipes don’t corrode. A home is resilient when it doesn’t have to depend on a grid for support. A resilient home is a home that can heal itself despite the weather, climate change or economic-stressor events.”

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Robert Weitz, a former home builder and founder of RTK Environmental Group, an environmental testing firm that services the Northeast from Boston to the Washington area, has been working closely with builders to repair homes damaged by mold and construct new homes that are more resistant to climate change.

The certified microbial investigator outlined key considerations when building a resilient home:

– Build aboveground to avoid water intrusion into the lower level and lessen potential radon infiltration.

– Make sure your builder uses a high-quality housewrap to protect against damaging wind and rain that can penetrate exterior siding.

“In the Northeast, they used to take a roof shingle and nail it right onto the plywood,” Weitz said. “Now, the code is to use a weather shield or ice shield.”

– Use drywall panels that are specially treated to resist mold, mildew, moisture and fire.

– Incorporate proper building orientation and daylighting strategies to ensure natural light and comfortable interior temperatures during a power outage.

The need for resilient design is especially apparent to architects, who want their buildings to stand for generations.

“By layering design concepts that allow homes to better absorb and recover from adverse events, architects keep their clients better situated to handle whatever threat confronts them,” said Matt Tinder, spokesman for the American Institute of Architects.

On Dec. 23, climate change hit close to home for Dawn Zuber, chairwoman of the American Institute of Architects’ Custom Residential Architects Network and owner of Studio Z Architecture in Canton, Mich.

“We had a tornado touch down about two miles from my home. It came up so quickly that there was no warning,” Zuber said, noting the importance of designing homes that can withstand wild weather swings.

Studio Z uses traditional building techniques in new ways, working with wood-frame construction and high-quality components.

“You want to make sure, for example, the trusses are held down with good-quality connectors so the roof doesn’t blow off,” she said. “We specify wide washers to bolt the walls to the foundation. We use new types of insulation [cellulose and spray foam] that get you a higher insulation value. We insulate on the outside of the studs to keep the heat and cold from transferring through the studs. The goal of what we do is keeping any kind of water from becoming a problem.”

The economic significance of building fortified homes has not been lost on the insurance industry.

“We’ve done a lot of research around climate change, the impact on losses, and through education, how do we inform people to do things better,” said Carl Hedde, senior vice president of risk accumulation at Munich Reinsurance America. “We have to make the homes and businesses we live in and work in more resilient.”

Building codes need to be strengthened nationwide, he said, pointing out that Florida has been noteworthy in this regard.

After Hurricane Andrew struck the state in 1992, Florida took steps to improve the inspection process surrounding code enforcement and bolster its building codes, Hedde said. Examples of the state’s code enhancements include requirements for stronger hurricane straps to keep roofs from blowing off during strong wind and the use of more and stronger nails in the construction process.

This spring, Munich Reinsurance is planning to launch a free tablet app that will empower users to make informed decisions on resilient home projects.

The app will take a holistic, whole-house approach to ensure that the homeowner and team of building professionals consider all the variables that go into fortifying a home, such as properly installing siding or hurricane straps.

“We’re going to have videos that show, for example, how to put on a roof in a stronger way,” Hedde said. “The more people that know what can be done and how to do it will help people make their homes resilient.”

Brenda Richardson is a Chicago-based freelance writer who previously served as an editor of a Chicago Tribune section.