When Hurricane Michael hit the Florida Panhandle in October 2018, Becky Nixon’s home in Panama City was damaged by limbs falling from the old oak and pine trees that once surrounded her triple-wide trailer.
“Everywhere the trees fell, they left holes in the roof,” Nixon says. “My son’s home was destroyed by Michael and so were two of my nieces’ homes.” After her son moved in with her, Nixon became ill from extensive black mold inside her home’s walls that grew because of persistent leaks from storm damage. Finally, after 14 inspections of her home, it was deemed unlivable by the local government.
“At first FEMA told me I would get a mobile home, but with the help of Samaritan’s Purse [a nonprofit humanitarian aid organization], I was able to have a brand-new home built for me,” Nixon says. “It’s phenomenal, a two-bedroom house that was built to way more than standard requirements for energy efficiency and hurricane ratings.”
Intense storms such as hurricanes and tornadoes, floods, wildfires, high winds and extreme heat and cold are becoming more common as climate change impacts the Earth, so homes like Nixon’s are likely to become more sought after. With donated materials and assistance from the Tallahassee-based Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH), Nixon’s home is a model of resilience to natural disasters.
Resilient design refers to intentionally designing buildings, landscapes, communities and regions to adapt to a wide variety of impacts from climate change, according to the Resilient Design Institute. There aren’t broadly accepted specific metrics in place for homes to qualify as resilient – not like LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), which certifies buildings for energy efficiency and low carbon emissions.
“After Hurricane Michael, I had some PTSD and panic attacks, but since I moved into this house, I don’t even hear the rain,” says Nixon, who also regained her health after moving from her mold-filled home. Her new home has extra insulation to protect against temperature extremes and was built with 8-by-8-inch lumber instead of 4-by-4 lumber for greater strength.
“One reason FLASH got involved with upgrading Mrs. Nixon’s home was to demonstrate the short cost differential between meeting the standard code and building a resilient home,” says Leslie Henderson, president and CEO of the organization. “Resilient homes are durable homes.”
The nonprofit’s mission is to help every homeowner have their “DREAM” home, which stands for “durable, resilient, energy-efficient, affordable and modern.”
A resilient home is one that’s built for the future after an assessment of current and predicted risks, says Illya Azaroff, a founding principal of +LAB architects and an associate professor at New York City College of Technology.
“Resilient design can have multiple benefits, including sustainability,” says Alex Wilson, president of the Resilient Design Institute and founder of BuildingGreen in Brattleboro, Vt. “The elements of resilient design, such as higher insulation levels, stronger windows, passive solar power and natural daylight that will help homeowners survive power outages, extreme heat and extreme cold, also save energy and mitigate climate change.”
Homes that survive a major storm or fire also reduce the amount of disaster-related debris that ends up in landfills, Henderson says.
While architects and builders can use technology and materials to improve a home’s durability during a disaster, home buyers can also add resilience to their list of traits to consider when searching for a home. Homeowners can retrofit their homes to reduce the likelihood or intensity of damage due to weather extremes.
“You need to start by assessing risks in an area, such as flooding in some parts of the D.C. region, wildfires in California and tornadoes in the Midwest,” Wilson says. “Look at projections for the future, too, such as the anticipated prevalence of droughts in some areas even as precipitation increases.” Wilson says resources such as flood factor and wildfire risk maps can help consumers understand what may be required to protect their homes.
Just as technology has improved other industries, building science and building materials have evolved in recent decades, Azaroff says.
“For example, before construction even starts, architects and builders can put their design through a program to see if any alterations would help the structure be more wind resistant,” Azaroff says. “We can project 50 to 100 years in the future and model how the house will perform under extreme heat conditions or increased precipitation.”
At the same time, Azaroff says, architects are reevaluating traditional architecture to respond to environmental surroundings. For example, a hip roof, which has multiple slopes, offers better wind resistance than a gable roof, which has only two slopes.
“The way a house is assembled also plays a big role in its resilience,” Azaroff says. “For a minimal cost differential, builders can use ring shank nails instead of regular nails, use more nails and arrange them in a way that addresses wind pressure and uplift. Taping and sealing the edges of the plywood lining and the roof also provides enhanced strength for very little additional cost.”
To reduce flood damage, many homes are built without a basement or a crawl space, Wilson says.
“If there is a basement, it’s smart to avoid putting mechanical equipment there,” Wilson says. “Some homes are designed with ‘wet flood proofing’ so floodwater can enter and exit the house easily without knocking it down. You can also design a home with ‘wettable’ materials that can dry out if they get wet rather than paper-based materials that have to be torn out and replaced.”
For extreme heat and cold, the best strategy is a super energy-efficient home, Wilson says.
“Extra insulation and triple pane windows help, along with mechanical systems built for higher cooling or heating capacity in the future,” Wilson says. “You can also place windows facing north and south with overhangs for summer shade rather than facing east and west. Planting shade trees and vines can keep a house cooler, too.”
“The first thing every buyer should begin with is the location,” Henderson says. “For example, if you’re in an area prone to earthquakes, find out how close the house is to a fault line and find out the history of the house such as whether there’s been an insurance claim on it.”
The FLASH Buyers Guide to Resilient Homes includes printable checklists for home buyers and lists of questions to ask your real estate agent about how disaster-resistant a home may be.
Comparing the year the house was constructed to the building code at the time can also provide insight into the level of insulation and how the home was built, Wallis says. You can visit the Inspect to Protect website (inspecttoprotect.org) and enter an address to find out the code under which a home was built, the history of natural disasters in the area and suggested retrofits to make the property more resilient.
“When you’re shopping for a home, you can factor in what you might be able to do to make it safer,” Henderson says. “It’s important to understand that the cost of a home is not just the selling price, it’s also the cost of not having a home if an emergency hits and your home needs to be repaired.”
Many home listings now include information about flood zones and climate risk and the potential for higher insurance costs, Azaroff says.
“You can also ask a home inspector to check the age and condition of the roof, whether there are impact resistant windows and to assess the insulation if possible,” Azaroff says. “This is not just for safety. Resilient homes tend to retain their property values better than homes that are not resilient.”
An energy audit can be a good place to start looking for ways to improve your home’s resilience to climate change, Wilson says. The audit can identify areas to weatherize your home.
“If you’re concerned about extreme heat and cold, you need to start with the building envelope,” Azaroff says. “You may want to add roof insulation to resist rapid changes in temperature and check your windows and doors to see if they need to be replaced.”
Simply caulking and sealing your windows and doors can make a difference, along with shutters or shade outside for summer heat, Azaroff says.