How to Design a Natural Disaster-Resistant Home

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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.

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  • Because we live in an area where there have been fires before, when we replaced our roof, we put on a commercial grade metal roof to resist cinders.

  • We live in a heavy snow area. We have not had to rebuild, but have made improvements over the years. We replaced an old pellet stove with a wood burning one in our kitchen so that we have heat without need for electricity. We upgraded our furnace, installed PEX pipes, and this year did spray foam. We also keep good tools on hand- a quality snow shovel goes a long way! We do rake our roof, but the roof is black metal, which helps with melt. We also put in insulated windows when we bought the place. If heat is getting in, its also getting out.

    We have had years where 25 feet of snow and sub zero temps are common, but well prepared means survival up here.

    • It’s great that you guys have taken preparative measures. As climate change will intensify each year, natural disasters will be more common and more intense.
      Staying prepared increases survival rates as well as safeguarding our belongings and property!

      • Climate change by modern definition, has been proven false.
        It is a narrative still floated to force authoritarian control of peoples lives. Yes the climate does ” change”, but mostly due to Sun spot activity and cycles.
        Any so called “Man made” changes are small, insignificant and are quickly reversed by Nature.

        But lets look at some evidence:
        “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—in its Fifth Assessment Report, published in 2013—found “low confidence” of increased hurricane activity to date because of global warming. Storms are causing more damage, but primarily because more wealthy people choose to live on the coast, not because of rising temperatures.”

        “…Mr. Gore has suggested that global warming had caused an increase in tornadoes, that Mount Kilimanjaro’s glacier would disappear by 2016, and that the Arctic summers could be ice-free as soon as 2014. These predictions and claims all proved wrong.”

        If you are looking for a Disaster, just follow the narrative of the Media. They are quick to promote anything as a Disaster or potential one. Like ” Climate Change”.
        ( note that none of the original ” climate change predictions” have come true, especially the ones that Al Gore promoted)
        Fear sells. It creates followers. Which brings in advertisers and the big $$$$.
        The same goes for Environmental and other Political groups such as BLM,LGBTQ…, Anti Gun groups etc.

        Natural events sometimes become Disasters. So we should prepare for them. But don’t buy in to Bogus narratives and fake Science.
        Don’t buy into Fear in any form or on any subject.
        Fear will kill you. If not just the stress it creates (because stress is a killer), but it causes you to make rash and illogical choices.
        Prudence, not Fear, is the key.
        Prep and be Prepared for future uncertainties, but not out of Fear, but out of wise and sound Judgement.

      • Climate change is a natural occurrence , one which our Earth has gone through many times, It’s like and ebb and flow. All natural.

      • “As climate change will intensify each year, natural disasters will be more common and more intense”

        so what’s the latest climate change talking point? should we prepare for global desertification or global glaciers?

      • “As climate change will intensify each year, natural disasters will be more common and more intense.”

        No. No they won’t. That’s not how it works.

  • For new construction, concrete bloc is used almost exclusively here in South Florida.
    Another issue with wood frame homes in our climate are the termites.

  • I’m very happy to look at the blizzard construction section and see that my house stacks up well! I feel very blessed. One thing I would add, and this really goes for any disaster that causes a power outage, is the kind of food you don’t necessarily have to cook. Daisy made this point in her Endgame interview in fact. Gas stoves have electric igniters and electric stoves are-electric. Once the electricity goes out, it’s good to have food that doesn’t require cooking. Blankets and warm clothes too, because forced air heating systems also have electrical components. It gets cold right quick in an unheated house when it’s -30 outside!

    • There are off-grid stoves that use a battery pack for spark. That way you can use the oven as well as the burners. In summer, you can build a rocket stove outdoors from about 25 bricks just stacked with no mortar, they use twigs and very small branches for fuel.

      Check out vernacular building styles for your area. Some alternative styles are very useful, as well. Round earthbag buildings in other countries have held up well during moderate earthquakes. Timber frames flex.

  • We’d be SOL in the event of a tornado or an earthquake. What I do have is a singlewide mobilehome insulated for zone 2-3, double paned windows, sliding built in storm windows, and a steep pitched roof to handle snow. The water system is designed so it doesn’t usually freeze even with below zero Temps. We do have pex waterline to the home and in the home. The propane cookstove can be lit with a long lighter or matches. The propane waterheater lights with a clicker much like a cigaretlighter, no electricity involved. Heater is a gravity fed pellet optional rocket stove with a 16″ diameter round heat collector that I cook on all winter. I cook on wood or charcoal in my homemade BBQ outside all summer. I seldom use that propane stove. Putting in a new solar array. Replacing an old one that is no longer operating. All new panels, batteries, inverter, and charge controller and wire. I am waiting on ordering the last battery next week. Then I’ll begin building mounts for the panels.
    I do want a metal roof for fire safety. Perhaps with time.
    I have two wells. One on commercial power and one with a manual winch. We have stored water and food.
    Fool proof? NO! But doing the best I can with what I have.

  • The Federation of American Scientists have studied Structural insulated panels (SIPs) under varying conditions as the author mentions above, with good results.

  • “Designing for earthquakes”

    put the structure on rollers.

    don’t laugh, it’s done. nearby penney’s was built on rollers in anticipation of “the big one”, the building would rumble slightly every few minutes as natural heating/cooling expansion/contraction shifted the structure on its rollers.

  • In the northern states vinyl siding is prone to shattering when it gets cole. Steel or PVC siding does not have this problem, although PVC siding is more common in the prairie provinces ot Canada I hear.

    We have a wood furnace as back up heat and I have a wood stove in my shop I can bring in and hook into the chimney if there is no power. I have two generators, one is dual fuel gas / propane and a straight gas one.

    Primary heat is electric and I’m adding in a propane furnace this summer. I will have a propane tank to run it and will be hooking up th3 generator to it as well.

    I have several kerosene heaters in the shop should all else fail.

    Ideally I’d like to build a new house with the majority of it below ground/in a hill. I’d have one side exposed, south side would be my first choice. That side would be reinforced to withstand tornado level winds. But building a new house is a ways off, if ever.

    Upgrading siding, windows, insulstion and roof on the current house is probably the likely route.

    • I’m on the same page with the wood stove. Since we get extreme cold here, lots of snow at times and prone to blizzards I’ve seriously considered hooking the wood burning stove to the chimney as well. In my previous house I had a blower on the stove and a vent in the floor above the stove as well as a few others to warm the upper level. It’s something I’m considering here as well.
      I have generators as well and one of the cook stoves inside can run off of gas or propane, lighting with a match or lighter and no electric start if power goes out.

  • When blizzard warning is issued, keep a snow shovel inside the house. You may find yourself having to shovel your way out of the house.

  • Rule number one to avoid flooding. Don’t build in areas that could flood.

    I bought a house that was not on even a 10,000 year flood plain. Then came Hurricane Harvey. We were flooded by the actions of the Army Corps of Engineers. We got nearly two feet of water, and neighbors a few blocks away got six feet.

    The only thing you can do to prevent that is to think before you buy.

  • Very good information, Dirce. I appreciate you covered a lot of bases as well as links to learn more.
    I made it through the flood of 93 and other floods here in Iowa. Thankfully I could relocate for awhile to a rural bug out and had well water when even standing in long lines for water didn’t guarantee getting any.
    Before I moved where I am now I wasn’t even in a flood area but it rained so much one year -the sewer was coming up in the basement. I learned what a check valve in a drain was a bit too late. Consequently cleaning up the water in the basement I contracted MRSA and drs seemed ignorant then on how to treat it. Probably still are! Thankfully with Collaidal silver and Oreganol P73 I was able to get through but it was a long road. One I prefer never to go down again.
    Where I’m at now there are ledges all around the downstairs area that are aproximately 4 foot high and 3 feet wide. Everything can be stored off the floor and I had a furnace installed that is hanging. If I should put my wood stove down there it more than likely would be trashed for use for awhile. But hopefully the check valve in the drain would work or I’d have to get out of Dodge.
    Winters here are cold, known for the power going out and blizzards. Always being prepared with generators, the wood stove, and a stove that operates on gas or propane, can be match lit and no electronic ignition would be a solution.
    We do have tornados around me but they are usually a distance away and nothing like Kansas. I never say never. Anything can happen this day and age.
    The basement has pretty think walls and construction so would be some measure of protection for the dogs and I to hunker down for awhile.
    Having plenty of water, food and a way to cook are always something I’m prepared for no matter if the weather or shtf.

  • For cold, have all your outside non hittable things flagged sonwhen clearing snow you dont damage think the flag behind bicycle as a kid . Yard hydrants, flower beds, holes in the yard (septic)

    Build to.LEED designs gold to platinum status saves you large on the maintenance and upkeep

    We use a single slant roof with no doors down slope… when the snow comes off it can kill you.

    For fire places dont bother with cheap chimney pipe but a schedule 40 pipe in right size and use that as chimney, where it goes through the roof insulate with 2 inches of ceramic fiber and the jacket in stainless steel with end caps….

    At some point you will get a chimney clog with the schedule 40 you can use a long 2×4 to break up creosote build up to open the chimney fast. Especially if -30+

    There will be nay sayers of seasoned wood and no build up. That is bS just less build up.

    If you have money in cold spot get a over stove like a pioneer princess
    Hit heats and cooks.

    For guys mention of pex piping, remember to buy 2x the fittings as the fitting break if frozen not the pipe and if a mass freeze look at texas and plumbing supplies there wont be any so also get the correct bands to crimp shut.

    Have heated garage for your snow clearing equipment so it stays above freezing.. cold equipment does not like to start. If bigger stuff outside have a block heater you check each fall and an older piece that can withstand an ether start, new glow plugs will not do this.

    Have extra magnetic block heaters you can add on… sometime past -30 you will need its regular block heater and another 600 watt one.

    Also deisel have a system called proheat you can set timer so it heats your cab your engine and hydraulic lines using a diesel tube to your tank. Buy used from semi salvage yard.

    Dont buy plastic shovels in real cold they snap or if you hit anything they chip. If snow sticking to shovel wd40 it ot teflon boot spray it.

    Dont buy a cheap snow blower buy quality or you will regret it.

    Also when driving in cold have a chainsaw with you that has come.fro.heated space… trees break in cold.

  • You Need More Than Food to Survive

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