Hurricane-Proof Houses: The New Normal

Hurricane-Proof Houses: The New Normal

Hurricane-Proof Houses: The New Normal

Tampa Bay dodged a bullet with Hurricane Irma. Despite the National Hurricane Center's warnings for a direct Category 4 hit and 12-foot storm surge, Irma weakened and passed east of the metro area, leaving behind minor damage.

If the storm had slammed into Tampa Bay it could have damaged or completely destroyed more than 450,000 homes, causing over $175 billion in losses, according to CoreLogic. This places the Tampa Bay region as one of the top 10 most at-risk areas on the globe, an area the Washington Post calls one of the most vulnerable in the world to hurricanes.

Despite the threat, the Tampa Bay real estate market remains on fire. Prices are at or above their 2007 highs in almost every zip code, and with a critically low inventory of homes for sale at every price bracket, many buyers are paying top dollar to live in flood hazard zones. Here, BUILDER talks with John William Barger, vice president of St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Barger Builders & Developers, about what it's like to build homes in such a vulnerable part of the country.

What arecity and county leaders, builders, and developers doing to prepare for a directhit?

We are lucky in St. Petersburg that our city leaders have had the foresight to go above and beyond the minimum standard Florida building code to ensure all new structures, and all additions made to existing structures, meet wind loads of 145 mph. Many homebuilders constantly complain that these excessive building codes only add costs without realizing additional market value, and has lead several regional and national home builders to exit the market, allowing for local builders to fill a gap in what would otherwise be a much more competitive market.

Depending on their product, builders either embrace these regulations and tout the accompanying energy efficiencies earned with block construction and impact rated windows and doors, or find loopholes to keep costs down. Affordable home builders have found ways to still build frame homes on a poured foundation, securing the walls and roof trusses with a network of metal straps and offering wind-rated fabric hurricane coverings for any non-impact rated windows and doors. Luxury builders like us prefer all-block construction with the highest rated windows and doors, the cost up front is higher but a luxury buyer appreciates the quality and longevity of a superior material and the operating expenses of the home are significantly reduced since block walls and thick windows tend to keep out the Florida heat as well as flying debris.

While no one likes to talk about impending doom or a direct hit, it's obvious more and more buyers are seeking out new construction and eschewing older homes, and we are seeing more and more older, lower homes (even homes built in the 1980's and 90's) being demolished to make way for newer, stronger homes. This is adaptation in motion!

What can home builders in flood-prone areas do to prepare the homes they are building?

Build up! Not only is it smart, it's mandated by the building code. Irma was Florida's first direct hit by a major hurricane in 12 years, and it proved that the new more stringent building code works. While most trees and yards were obliterated by the storm, newer homes built after 2002 with impact windows stand intact with minimal, if any, damage. Homes built in the 1990's or before, or those built without impact windows and doors, are ones laying in rubble in Southwest Florida and across the Keys.

What is the 10 foot rule and how does it apply to new home building?

FEMA has mandated that all homes existing in the floodplain be required to hold flood hazard insurance. FEMA has defined the "floodplain" as any land rising 10 feet or less above sea level. In Tampa Bay, all municipal building codes mandate that the finished floor of any new structure be above the FEMA-defined floodplain, with the City of St. Petersburg mandating that floors be at minimum 2 feet above the FEMA floodplain. This means that all new homes that have been built since 2014 must be elevated to 12 feet (not including garages and exterior patios and porches).

This has created the "tall house" phenomenon, where a flight of steps often leads to the front door and main living space of a home, or in some coastal communities, the garages are placed completely under the living space. This has added significant cost to the construction of new homes, and often requires piles be driven to stabilize the heavier foundation and/or stem walls be more strongly reinforced with a significant amount of structural steel.

Tell us more about your hurricane proof homes.

Hurricanes present two unique threats: wind and water. Avoiding water damage is the easier, albeit more expensive, measure, simply by building homes up out of the flood plain. Wind is a bit more complex problem, as it often brings with it flying debris like poorly installed roof tiles or large oak trees, however properly securing a roof to the walls and foundation of the home is the first line of defense against any storm. Impact windows and doors also keep the elements out, and when windows break, the resulting wind pressure creates a strong upward lift on roofs, which is why when you see many older homes lose their roofs in a storm, broken windows are normally to blame.

Basically, the homes we build are beautiful bomb shelters on a pedestal. We prefer to build a home on a solid foundation using stem walls and structural steel, and construct all exterior walls out of 12" concrete block. This creates a strong, solid base that won't shift or settle in the storm surge or sway in the wind. Because we use Category 5-rated windows and doors, our homes are not dungeons and do not appear rugged or dark. The biggest surprise we find buyers and clients have when inside our homes is the amount of natural light our designs allow. We have even recently installed impact glass and steel garage doors that allow a significant amount of natural light (but no heat!) into what normally is dark and dusty space.

The goal of any hurricane-proof house is for it to feel as normal as possible. Sure, the construction cost is about double what it would cost in most other states in the US, and sure, it takes about twice as long to build, and of course, we use a lot of weather-resistant materials like marine-grade stainless steel fixtures and railings, and porcelain and natural stone pavers and trim, but at the end of the day, these homes still feel like normal homes, and for us, they are normal… or at least the new normal.
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