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Jul. 31, 2013

Weather-Resistant Technologies

By Jessica Fiur, News Editor

With the devastating effects of the Oklahoma City tornado and Hurricane Sandy still reverberating throughout the country, now more than ever is the time to start including weather-resistant technologies in new developments and rehabilitation projects.

Many developers are taking this to heart. According to an article on WebEcoist, there are buildings being designed to withstand a variety of weather-related disasters, such as hurricanes, tornados and even earthquakes. They are using out-of-the-box ideas, such as a floating building inspired by coral reef, soccer-ball shaped homes that are earthquake proof and a community made from sticky rice.

Though not all communities are being built with unique materials or designed with unusual exteriors, developers, especially those in areas that are highly impacted by weather, are paying more attention to the materials they use to make the communities safer in a natural disaster.

One of the keys is to have a solid foundation, according to Mark Drake, principal, KTGY Architecture + Planning. “The use of materials becomes important,” says Drake. “The use of brick, or something more solid like a stucco material, is better than siding, because, quite frankly, siding is susceptible to wind taking it off the building and throwing it around. It’s like the old ‘Three Little Pigs’ story: There’s a house built of straw, a house built of sticks and a house built of brick. Well, the house built of brick is the one that’s going to survive.”

Russell Maynard, senior vice president, Prestige Companies, agrees. “Impact glass and high-wind roofing shingles are being utilized beyond the required coastal zones,” Maynard says. “Building envelopes are getting more attention for weather resistance and life-cycle needs; brick and block, as well as hard plank and stucco systems, are more the norm. Vinyl siding is not a preferred product any longer—it has a tendency for weather failure.”

Additionally, wood-frame structures are becoming less and less utilized. For example, in Florida, an area often plagued by hurricanes, developers aren’t even permitted to build with wood frames when they are close to the coast.

“[On the coast of Florida,] they have to block walls with better tie-downs on the roof so the roof doesn’t fly off,” Drake says. “The code changed close to the coast in Florida so you can’t do wood-frame [construction] anymore; you have to use CMU [concrete masonry units].”

Weather-resistant technologies continue to evolve, making buildings safer and safer. “I see more man-made composite materials becoming the norm rather than the exception,” Maynard says. However, even though new materials are constantly coming to market, it is often easier, and more cost effective, to build a community safe from weather hazards from conception, rather than adding these technologies during a renovation.

“It’s very difficult to retrofit a building, because in order to improve it structurally, you first have to concentrate on the connections, like roof to wall, wall to floor, etc.,” Ernst Kiesling, research professor in the National Wind Institute at Texas Tech University, says. “In a retrofit situation these are very difficult to get to without a major renovation.

Battening down the hatches

Debris from buildings could also become major liabilities, with the potential to damage other nearby communities, or, worse, injure or even kill people.

“No one should be using gravel on their roofs anymore, because gravel gets picked up by wind, and if the wind is blowing at 200 miles an hour, that gravel is flying at 200 miles an hour into other buildings,” Drake warns. Instead of gravel, he suggests using built-up roofing or membrane roofing.

And, be aware that it’s not just gravel that could turn dangerous during a storm. “The more attention that can be paid into avoiding objects on buildings from being thrown off and flying into other buildings is very important,” Drake says. He also warns against awnings or other items that are relatively loose that could be ripped off the building during high winds.

However, it’s also crucial to focus on the big picture. If you only weather proof one area of a building, such as not using gravel on roofs or using storm shutters on windows, this will leave the rest of the apartment community vulnerable.

“There’s no reason to put in storm-safe doors and storm-safe windows unless the entire building—the walls, the roof, the skyline—[is also safe],”Kiesling says.

Doing the cost analysis

Though it is preferable to construct buildings using weather-resistant technologies, sometimes the developer might find the materials too cost prohibitive. After disasters, building codes are often evaluated to determine if changes need to be made. However, often times developers must weigh the benefits of exceeding these codes, because this is typically expensive.

“We can force everyone to do better by increasing the building codes, or the owner and the builder can go code-plus—in other words, design for a higher wind speed than is required,” Kiesling says. “However, this is more costly. So many decisions are market-driven, and marketability is a hindrance to improved construction because if you increase the cost, [the new property] still has to compete with [local properties].

It’s important to note that a high cost up front doesn’t necessarily mean a high cost in the long run.

“The materials are cost-effective for an end-user mostly as the life cycle exceeds those of lesser quality, such as vinyl and/or painted lumbers,” Maynard says. “The insulating factors are greater with a solid-type surface application. These items are slightly more costly than vinyl or a wood product, but the end result is a strong and tighter envelope with an increased lifecycle without all the added maintenance cost.”

However, cost continues to be an ongoing factor in determining whether or not to utilize these weather-resistant materials.

“It’s a problem with trying to build housing for a reasonable cost versus worst-case scenarios,” Drake says. “The answer is that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of impetus in the industry to change from using things like siding that gets pretty easily damaged in a storm, versus using things like masonry or stucco that has a lot more resistance in a storm. The industry as a whole, especially in coastal areas, needs to figure out what it wants to do. My guess is, unfortunately, everyone will go back to business as usual, because everyone is going to look at the bottom line.”

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