[Homestead] Houses, build them to minimize risk

Tvoivozhd tvoivozd at infionline.net
Thu Sep 23 00:55:50 EDT 2004

That means hurricant-proof, fire and flood-resistant---you can 
self-insure a really safe house and your unspent insurance premiums will 
pap for any added construction cost---and you don't have to fight a 
promise-to-pay insurance company in court to force them to pay, either.

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from the September 22, 2004 edition

STILL STANDING: Jonathan Zimmerman designed this house in Pensacola 
Beach, Fla., to withstand 300-m.p.h. winds. It was undamaged by recent 

Houses that defy hurricanes
By Neal Learner | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
Florida snowbird Mary Frances McKenzie considered herself fortunate 
after hurricane Charley blew through recently. Her winter home in Spring 
Lake, Fla., withstood the mammoth storm unscathed. The house down the 
block did not.

The roof on that cement-block stucco villa blew its top and crashed into 
her sister-in-law's back porch. "It caused a lot of water damage," says 
the Indiana native of her in-law's home, just two doors down.

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Fortunately, many new homes in hurricane-prone areas today are built to 
codes to avoid such an unpleasant scenario. These include everything 
from domed homes that are supposed to survive 300-mile-per-hour winds to 
safety innovations on more conventional houses.

While progress has been made, there is still much that could be done to 
mitigate damage, experts say.

The winds of a major hurricane can rip apart a poorly built house, or 
inflate it like a balloon, says Chad Morris, associate director of the 
Wind Science and Engineering Research Center at Texas Tech University in 

"That usually begins with a window or door that fails from the wind 
pressure," he says. "The air is then allowed to enter into the house, 
which lifts the roof off the home. Once that happens, it just blows the 
guts out of the inside. Sometimes it will blow out the back wall."

Ten years ago, the weakest link was roof sheathing and its attachment to 
the roof, says Tim Reinhold, of the Institute for Business and Home 
Safety, a nonprofit group funded by the insurance industry. "In 
[hurricane] Andrew, probably 90 percent of homes that had damage had 
some sort of roof covering damage. What we saw in Charley was that 
people had begun to attach roof sheathing better."

The big issue now is in the attachment of soffits, the vinyl stripping 
that covers the space where the roof meets the walls. This material is 
just being stuck in there and not being attached according to 
specifications, he explains. "As the wind blew in the house, the roof 
was staying on, but the soffit material was blowing up and allowing rain 
to blow right in over the wall and into the ceilings of the house," Mr. 
Reinhold says of his observations after Charley. "Then you get all of 
your insulation wet, your ceiling starts to collapse, and you've trashed 
your house."

Other weak links are of the human kind. Competitive pressures are 
pushing builders to erect homes quickly in booming coastal communities. 
Because of that competition, some builders will cut corners, says Ben 
Sill, director of the general engineering program at Clemson University 
in South Carolina.

Building inspectors, meanwhile, may show up in the morning to inspect 
roof work just starting, only to return later that day to find the 
asphalt shingles already up, says Mr. Sill, former director of Clemson's 
wind-load test facility. "Unless you have some guy standing there the 
whole time ... you just have to take a lot of people's word that they 
did it right."

The right way to install a roof, for example, includes attaching plywood 
with nails at six-inch intervals along the edges and eight to 12 inches 
up the center, says Charles Miller, an editor at Fine Homebuilding 
magazine and a former homebuilder. Many of the homes that sustained the 
most hurricane damage used staples that missed their mark, he adds. 
"They're not equating the results of bad building practices with the 
reality of what that storm is going to do with the house."

One basic safety feature that consumers should look for is hurricane 
strapping, flat metal strips that literally hold the trusses and rafters 
to the walls. Another important consideration is whether the house has 
shutters. And tiles need to be either screwed to the roof or embedded in 
a mortar patty designed to adhere to the tile, Miller says, adding that 
such measures don't add that much to the cost of the house.

If consumers demanded hurricane safety features, as they eventually did 
with car air bags, then builders would respond, Sill says. He wants a 
national wind-hazard mitigation program, much like a current program for 
earthquake hazards.

Congress is considering providing $60 million to establish a national 
wind-hazard mitigation program, Reinhold adds.

Is it possible to build a hurricane-proof house that doesn't look like a 
concrete bunker? Mark Sigler certainly thinks so.

After hurricane Ivan hammered nearby homes last week, his "dome home" on 
the Florida Panhandle survived the full brunt of the deadly storm with 
barely a scratch, Mr. Sigler says.

More than 80 percent of the houses on the barrier island were destroyed, 
including those on both sides of his home, says Sigler. The gracefully 
arched, reinforced concrete house sustained only minor damage, including 
to a staircase that blew away as designed to avoid damaging the structure.

The house was designed by San Francisco Bay-area architect Jonathan 
Zimmerman, who says the Sigler home proves that this is the strongest, 
safest way to build a house.

Construction of a domed home starts with a balloon inflated to the shape 
and size of the house. Rigid foam insulation is then sprayed on the 
inside surface of the inflated form, to which steel bars are attached in 
a crisscrossing pattern. Concrete is sprayed over the bars and 
insulation, with spaces left for doors, windows, and other architectural 
design spaces in the home.

Winds travel through the shell and wind loads are transferred down to 
the foundation.

Sigler's dome home weighs about 850 tons, compared to about 30 tons for 
a similar-sized wood house. The cost of building such a home is 
comparable to other designed homes, says Sigler, who adds that it's an 
excellent investment: "These homes are designed to last seven generations."

Sigler and his wife, Valerie, won a $245,000 grant from the Federal 
Emergency Management Agency to help build the house. Florida has lost an 
estimated $45 billion to $50 billion from the three recent hurricanes.

Since the trio of hurricanes hit in rapid succession, Mr. Zimmerman has 
seen a jump in the number of visits to his website, www.zdomes.com 
<http://www.zdomes.com>. Work is under way to build one of his dome 
homes in an avalanche zone in Alaska.

"We live in a crisis-reactive society," he says. "These crises have 
really made people change the way they think and perceive things. If 
anything is accomplished by this, I am hoping that people will revisit 
the idea of what a home needs to be and what a home needs to look like."

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