- Florida architect Geoff Chick has built numerous hurricane-resistant homes in the Gulf of Mexico, which was recently ravaged by the Category 4 Hurricane Michael.
- Though the safest homes are often brand-new, Chick said there are a few ways to protect an existing structure from flooding and heavy winds.
- A home’s safety during a hurricane ultimately depends on whether its owners can afford expansive features like steel shutters or impact-rated garage doors.
Many Americans dream of a life on the coast, with the sun grazing their rooftops and waves lapping at the shore below. Not everyone considers the risk of purchasing a coastal property, which could easily be destroyed in the event of a hurricane.
When Hurricane Michael touched down in Mexico Beach, Florida, in mid-October, only one oceanfront home was left fully intact: a two-story structure known as Sand Palace that had been built a year prior. The remaining homes were either wiped out or stripped down to their shoddy foundations.
Much of this damage could have been prevented if the homes had adhered to Florida’s updated building codes, which require safe construction elements like buttressed roofs and shatterproof windows. But the fact that these codes were implemented in 2007 left older homes powerless in the face of the storm.
To find out what property owners can do to prepare for a future hurricane, we spoke with Geoff Chick, an architect building hurricane-resistant homes in the Gulf of Mexico, an area recently ravaged by the Category 4 Hurricane Michael.
Building for a hurricane
To protect themselves from damage, homeowners have one of two options: build a new structure or retrofit an old one. The price of both undertakings has left many low-income residents vulnerable to disaster.
The architect behind Sand Palace, Charles Gaskin, told The New York Times that hurricane-resistant features tend to double the cost of construction per square foot.
“I don’t think it’s feasible for everybody in the country to design their houses to be hurricane-proof,” said Chick. “There are so many people who don’t have the financial resources.”
For Chick, building a hurricane-resistant property comes down to a handful of foundational features. Still, he said, there are a few accessories that can protect an older home from damage. Here’s his recommended list.
Hurricane shutters help protect windows from debris that have been stirred up by strong winds.
The consequence of a broken window can be grave: In the event of a storm, it causes air pressure to rise and the house to blow apart from the inside.
For those worried about the labour or cost, there’s good news: Some insurance companies in states like Maryland, Florida, Louisiana, and Rhode Island offer discounted rates for homeowners with hurricane shutters.
While more expensive homes have shutters made of metal or polycarbonate plastic, lower-income properties often resort to plywood.
Impact windows are perhaps the most important feature for homes located near the coast, but not directly along the water, said Chick. Instead of being exposed to storm surge, these homes are vulnerable to a hurricane’s heavy winds.
Fifteen years ago, Chick said, impact windows weren’t required by the building code in Florida. It wasn’t until an onslaught of storms – including Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina – that insurance companies began to push for stricter regulations to protect themselves from loss.
Now it’s common for new homes in the Gulf to be made of laminated glass with a sheet of Kevlar inside. According to Chick, these windows are designed to withstand the impact of a 2×4 stud heading toward them at 150 miles per hour.
But this protection comes at a price. Chick said that impact windows are often double the cost of a normal window package: around $US40,000 compared to the standard $US18,000.
One of the most basic elements of hurricane-proofing is to build a home on concrete pilings, which elevate it above the storm surge. The pilings also help support the structure and keep it from collapsing amid heavy winds.
“Over the years, we’ve had houses that have survived storms because they were on pilings,” said Chick. “When the houses on either side of them collapsed into the Gulf, ours were still there.”
Hurricane straps – pieces of the galvanised steel that secure the walls of a home to its rafters – can be installed during a retrofit, but it’s an expensive and invasive process. Adding straps after a home has already been built requires cutting back the sheetrock and exposing the beams.
Chick said it’s far easier to install the straps during new construction, before the sheetrock has been laid down. But there’s still the cost of labour to consider.
In either case, hurricane straps help make sure that the roof doesn’t fly off during a storm.
Impact-rated garage doors
“A lot of the houses [during Hurricane Michael] had their entire roof system pulled off and blown down the street, and the point of failure was actually the garage door,” said Chick.
Just like a broken window, a broken garage door can allow wind to enter and put pressure on the roof. By shuttering a garage or installing an impact-rated garage door, residents can save their home from damage.
Chick said some of his previous projects have had impact-related garage doors that cost around $US10,000. Shutters are a much cheaper option, but offer less protection.
The price of safety
Whether they’re retrofitting an old home or building a new one, coastal homeowners pay a hefty premium for safety.
“There are a tremendous amount of hoops that you have to jump through when you build a Gulf-front house,” said Chick.
In the wake of Hurricane Michael, he said, newer multi-million-dollar structures in Panama City remained undamaged, while the older homes were cleared out.
“There were neighbourhoods where everything was completely destroyed, and the brand-new office buildings didn’t have a scratch on them,” he said.
As the region attempts to rebuild, these expensive properties are likely to multiply.
“People with the means to build a nice house are doing what it takes to protect themselves and their assets,” Chick said.
“You can be sure that everything that goes back in Mexico Beach is going to be built to the same level of construction as that one house that survived.”
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