Strengthening Building Codes Isn’t the Only Answer to Extreme Weather

resilient design for extreme weather

Resilient design can advance building endurance and limit homeowner displacement during severe weather events.

Alex Wilson-Resilient Design Institute.jpg

Alex Wilson, Resilient Design Institute

The 2017 Atlantic Hurricane season has been the seventh most active in history. In a year that’s seen widespread home damage and displacement of homeowners as the result of extreme weather events there’s some positive news to report. According to a Wall Street Journal article, homes built in Florida following the passage of more stringent building codes fared better during Hurricane Irma than those built previously.  But with more frequent occurrences of hurricanes and damaging storms, should more stringent building codes be the sole defense in limiting property damage and homeowner displacement?

While the adoption of updated and more stringent residential building codes may help mitigate property damage from severe weather events such as hurricanes and tornadoes, there’s a more robust building philosophy that could not only further advance building endurance, but also limit homeowner displacement during such events: resilient design.  Insulation Institute talked with Alex Wilson president of the Resilient Design Institute, a non-profit organization working to advance principles of resilience into buildings and communities about the practice and its necessity given the increasing prevalence of severe weather events.

Defining Resilient Design and Building

Resilient design is the intentional design of buildings, landscapes, communities, and regions to respond better to natural and man made disasters and disturbances. It’s designing a building or a home so that the basic needs of the occupants are met during and after a disruptive event. Based on the principle of “passive survivability” — the practice will, among other things, allow a building to maintain habitable temperatures in the event of extended power outages or interruptions in heating fuel.

For passive survivability, superb energy performance is the priority, and that can be achieved using any type of insulation. In locations where flooding may be a concern, there are some distinct advantages of using fiber glass or mineral wool over cellulose, since neither fiberglass nor mineral wool provides an organic food source for mold growth, even when moisture is present (although mold growth could occur if insulation is submerged in dirty water).

The Resilient Design Institute has long argued that all buildings and homes should achieve passive survivability — that it should be a baseline in residential building codes.  Wilson acknowledges that resilience is not absolute and buildings can’t be constructed to have total resilience, but passive survivability is achievable and, although not currently required by building codes, it could be in the future.

“Every successive natural disaster makes the prospect of adopting codes that ensure passive survivability more likely,” Wilson says. “We still have a ways to go before there’s universal acceptance of this need, but we will get there because resilient building is a priority for the entire nation. There is no county in the country that has not faced natural disasters of some kind.”

The Cost and Resilience

Arguably, one of the toughest hurdles to the widespread adoption of resilient construction is costs. Wilson says that some of the measures undertaken in resilient construction have virtually no impact on the cost of construction, such as optimizing building orientation or positioning more of the windows on the south facade rather than the east or west. And, while other elements do increase costs, such as boosting insulation levels and installing triple-glazed windows, if done wisely, such measures should add roughly two to five percent to the total cost of the home, an increase he believes consumers would be willing to bear.

“The recent natural disasters highlight that building for safety is an issue that our industry must address and consumers value and are willing to spend a little more for their safety,” Wilson noted.  “If such measures become codified those costs will be part of the standard package, so it won’t be as much of an issue.”

Planning for a Resilient Building Future

While widespread adoption of resilient construction practices may be years into the future, Wilson advocates that builders take a proactive approach to learning about it. “Attending green building workshops and Passive House training is an excellent way to gain knowledge,” he said.

For more information on resilient construction, visit the Resilient Design Institute website.

Stacy Fitzgerald-Redd is the Director of Communications for North American Insulation Manufacturers Association (NAIMA).