How to Design a Natural Disaster-Resistant Home
by Dirce Guerra
If you live in an area prone to natural disasters this article offers advice on how to design a natural disaster-resistant home. It’s only natural that we expect to feel safe and secure in our homes. Every geographical region is associated with some type of natural disaster. Some areas are vulnerable to several. Therefore, there are many benefits to planning and building a natural disaster-resistant home.
According to the Insurance Information Institute: “there was an average of 520 natural catastrophes per year between 1989 and 2018. In 2019 alone, there were 820 — a nearly 58% increase from the average over the past three decades. Insured losses for damage caused by these natural disasters exceeded $82 billion. This statistic doesn’t reflect the uninsured losses or incalculable losses of personal items like family photographs and other cherished objects.
The costs of NOT building a natural disaster-resistant home
Nature has no concern for roofs, walls, and foundations. Unfortunately, many construction firms have little concern about building housing to provide a robust defense against the natural disasters associated with their setting. Although builders must construct houses according to local code, that may not be enough for homebuyers looking for properties designed with Mother Nature’s fury in mind.
While $82 billion reflects the cost to insurance providers, the cost to individuals is more challenging to reflect. How does one measure the disruption to property owners’ lives after they’ve lost everything and must live out of a hotel for months or longer?
Insurance coverage is a crucial safety net for homeowners. However, it simply doesn’t replace what once was. The cost to individuals is both fiscal and emotional. The truth is that $82 billion reflects insured losses. Actual losses in 2019, according to the Insurance Information Institute, exceeded $210 billion.
Even the most prepared may someday deal with a catastrophe at the community or personal level that can’t be stopped. Deciding whether to rebuild in place or start over elsewhere can be daunting. Possessing the mental preparation to do so, along with some resources for how to make that happen is priceless.
Benefits of planning and constructing a natural disaster-resistant home
Constructing a disaster-resistant home requires careful planning. It’s also essential to work with an architect and construction firm with experience and expertise with disaster-resistant constructions for the area in question. The main benefit for these types of structures, of course, is increased safety. However, there’s a decided fiscal benefit for property developers, home buyers, and insurance carriers. Waiting to build a disaster-resistant house to replace one that was destroyed costs more than building from scratch.
Homes constructed specifically for the geographical region may also be more comfortable to live in owing to the better planning associated with elements such as building materials, energy efficiency, and routine maintenance. It stands to reason that the same house built in the West Coast, the Southern Atlantic Coast, or the Midwest region known as Tornado Alley isn’t likely to perform as well as a home that’s designed specifically for those regions and their conditions.
How much does it cost to build a natural disaster-resistant home?
Constructing a house designed to provide a robust level of protection against natural disasters depends on the disaster in question.
One news outlet estimates that a Mississippi house builder can expect to pay about $5,000 more to construct a house that meets ‘gold standard’ hurricane-resistance standards. As opposed to a home that meets the legal code.
The costs vary with the size of the construction, and the type of disaster damage builders are trying to keep at bay. Building an earthquake-resistant house or building can cost anywhere from 5% to 15% more than a conventional one. But the cost can vary by location. For instance, building an earthquake-resistant home in San Francisco is likely to cost substantially more than building one in areas of the Pacific Northwest. Home costs will vary depending on the local prices for materials and the contractor rates in the area.
Below is an overview for building disaster-proof homes. Hopefully, it will inspire you to design per your area. Or to take measures to retrofit your house to protect it from Mother Nature’s fury.
Designing for floods
Building a flood-resistant house means paying particular attention to elevation. The home’s foundation and basement or lower story at especial risk for water damage should a flood occur. When designing your flood-resistant home, consider the following:
- Recommended construction materials: waterproof membranes, concrete, marine-grade plywood, ceramic tile.
- Recommended house layout: The use of flood walls around the home’s perimeter are a good idea. A floating home design is one option. Use top-of-wall power outlets, foam and closed-cell insulation, and sewage backflow valves.
- Flood preparation: Purchase flood insurance coverage. Keep irreplaceable items, and food and water in watertight containers. Things to keep on hand in the event of flooding include water and food in waterproof containers, flashlights, batteries, rain gear, tarps, first aid kits, and a battery-powered radio.
- Retrofitting: This may include dry floodproofing (sealing the exterior walls) or levee construction.
Something else to know about floods, there are several diseases and myriad other health concerns that go hand in hand with freshwater flooding. No matter where you live there are risks that can cost you your life that have nothing to do with drowning.
Designing for hurricanes
No home is entirely safe from hurricane destruction. However, it is possible to minimize possible hurricane damage by bolstering its structural elements such as its walls and roof.
- Recommended construction materials: Strong framing materials such as Steel, wind-resistant roofing, fiber-cement siding, and pressure-treated timber (to prevent rot if exposed to rain.)
- Recommended house layout: Raise electrical outlets at least a foot above baseboards, install sewage backflow valves, install impact-resistant windows and doors, and install PVC shutter systems.
- Hurricane preparation: It’s crucial to barricade windows with a shutter system if possible or use plywood if you can. Items to keep on hand in case of a hurricane include several waterproof tarps and tie-downs, food and water stored in watertight bins, batteries, a battery-powered radio, a first-aid kit, and a fire extinguisher.
- Retrofitting: This may include installing waterproof membranes or rain-screen systems, additional fastenings for roofing, and gutters, such as truss screws or ring-shank nails.
Hurricanes are not always predictable. Sometimes we end up being surprised when suddenly the weather channel announces the newest named storm is headed straight for them – and it’s a big one. In this article, you’ll find a round-up of hurricane preparedness resources, including Daisy’s pdf book, “The Prepper’s Hurricane Survival Guide.”
Designing for earthquakes
Building an earthquake-resistant home requires the installation of reinforced foundations, lightweight construction materials, and materials designed to absorb seismic shock waves.
- Recommended construction materials: Steel, wood, bamboo, and polymers designed to promote strength and ductility are ideal construction materials for earthquake-prone areas.
- Recommended house design: Structurally sound geometry is the name of the game here—think overall square or rectangular layouts.
- Earthquake preparation: Install break-away shut-off valves for gas appliances and secure the water heater to the wall. Also, anchor heavy furnishings like bookcases to the walls, and install locking devices or strong latches on cabinets. Items to keep on hand in case of an earthquake include a fire extinguisher, first-aid kit, batteries, portable radio, flashlight, food, and water.
- Retrofitting: Bolster home foundation-to-frame connection, and install wall bracing.
Designing for tornados
Designing a tornado-resistant home means guarding against high winds and using impact-resistant materials.
- Recommended construction materials: Concrete forms, impact-resistant windows and doors, and wind-resistant roofing are ideal for homes in Tornado Alley.
- Recommended house layout: Layouts for tornado-resistant homes include ICF (concrete) walls, a rounded dome-shaped roof, and a home cabling system that tethers the house to the ground.
- Tornado preparation: Prepare an internal safety room without windows. Secure loose shingles. Store all outdoor items like lawn furnishings where they won’t become missiles during a tornado, and repair loose exterior components. Things to keep on hand in case of a tornado include an emergency safety kit, water, food, batteries, a flashlight, and a portable radio.
- Retrofitting: Install deadbolt locks on doors, install impact-resistant windows, brace garage doors, and prepare a home shelter, like a safe room or cellar.
In this article, Daisy offers a peek inside (literally) a tornado. She also offer’s excellent advice on how to survive a tornado.
Designing for wildfires
Building a wildfire-resistant home requires space and distancing the home from combustible materials like wooded areas and other houses. Builders can use non-igniting materials for roofs and other structural elements to reduce the risk of its destruction.
- Recommended construction materials: Fireproof concrete blocks, stucco, and tile for the exterior are ideal for homes in fire-prone areas.
- Recommended house design: Build at least 100 feet away from combustible materials. Use driveways, patios, or pavement to help protect the house from encroaching flames. Install a tile roof and ember-resistant exteriors, and install a sprinkler system around the home’s perimeter.
- Wildfire preparation: Block louvers and vents when a wildfire is approaching and remove combustible debris in gutters and around the home. Remove dead vegetation and tree limbs.
- Items to keep on hand in case of a wildfire include a whistle for signaling for help, water, food, a first aid kit, important documents, cash, and a disaster plan, including where to go if you need to evacuate.
- Retrofitting: Install fire-resistant landscaping like gravel, and fire-retardant plants like sumac and rock rose. Install roll-down fire-resistant metal screens for windows and doors. Clearing the landscaping to create an ember-resistant zone around the home’s perimeter will reduce the garage’s ignitability (and anywhere gasoline and other ignitable materials are).
Sadly, for many living in California, wildfires seem par for the course over the past few years. The Organic Prepper shares a daring rescue less than a year ago of hundreds of campers trapped by wildfires as well as her own story of living just a couple of miles from a raging inferno for nearly two weeks.
Designing for heatwaves
While they don’t pose the same level of threat to dwellings that wildfires or floods do, heatwaves can be deadly. Designers should focus on interior air circulation, optimum cooling systems, and cool-load avoidance measures to design a heat wave-resistant home.
- Recommended construction materials: Cool materials include stucco, brick, concrete, and gypsum.
- Recommended house layout: Install light-colored roofing materials to help deflect heat. Install a solar attic fan and use awnings to deflect heat from windows. Choose single-story designs since heat rises.
- Heatwave preparation: Most danger during a heatwave comes from power outages that often occur when the overtaxing of energy systems happen. Run your portable fans when you’re in the room, and be sure to have plenty of water on hand for you and your pets. Shield windows exposed to the sun and have somewhere you can go to cool off if you get overheated. If possible, purchase a generator to keep the electricity on in the event of a power outage.
- Retrofitting: Install awnings for windows and screens for patio doors, and install an energy-efficient air conditioning system that’s the right size for your home.
With extremely high temperatures comes the possibility of the power grid buckling. The risk of demand outstripping supply is very real. This article offers tips on how to keep cool in the event of a heatwave.
Designing for blizzards
Designing a house for a cold climate that’s vulnerable to heavy snows and blizzards means paying attention to more than just insulation. The home’s plumbing system and roof also need extra attention to detail.
- Recommended construction materials: Materials ideal for blizzard conditions include vinyl siding, spray foam insulation, and double-paned windows.
- Recommended house layout: A sloped roof in a blizzard-prone climate makes it easier to remove, and it prevents snow from accumulating deeply on the roof. Install large south-facing windows to capture more natural heat.
- Blizzard preparation: Purchase an efficient wood-burning stove, and have plenty of firewood on hand if the blizzard knocks out the power to your home. Have a week’s worth of food and water on hand. Be sure to have warm blankets and clothing available. Consider a generator to keep the heat on if the electricity goes out. Items to keep on hand in case of a blizzard include shovels, a snow-blower, warm clothing, a flashlight, portable radio, batteries, de-icing salt, and plenty of food and water.
- Retrofitting: Install pipe insulation to prevent freezing and provide cover for entrances, so they don’t become blocked by snow. Install a snow-melting system for walkways and the driveway.
Every winter, if you live in certain climates, blizzards are going to occur. Usually, at least one storm will hit that will cause you to be snowed in. Often, those storms mean you will also lose power. There is the inevitable rush to the store for milk and bread, during which people battle it out for the last supplies left on the shelves.
But you can avoid the discomfort of being unprepared. This article is full of links to previous articles that will help you in prepping for a blizzard.
Share your experience building a natural disaster-resistant home
Have you had to rebuild after a natural disaster? What was it like? What did you do? Would you do anything differently? Let’s talk about it in the comments below.
About the Author
Dirce is a writer and life explorer interested in reading, thinking, and drinking ginger tea. She has an insatiable thirst for learning and writing about topics that can improve our lives. When not working, you can find her playing with her dogs or doing yoga.