Building to Last: Designing Under Extreme Conditions

Courtesy of Boora Architects
Building and remodeling on the shore requires storm-savvy design and time-tested techniques.

Earthquakes, erosion, and howling winds go hand-in-hand with living near the ocean. Fortunately, when homeowners opt for traditional building methods instead of up-and-coming pre-fab systems, techniques exist for coping with this wide weather spectrum. The chief tactic is prudence. "Never fool with Mother Nature," says architect Louis DesRosiers, who designs homes on the Great Lakes. "You'll lose every time."

In any coastal area, a foundation engineered to anticipate brutal storms is the first line of defense. "What we're doing now," says Southern California architect Lewin Wertheimer, "is setting the whole house on concrete caissons that go to bedrock. All the sand could be washed away, and the house would stand. It's like freeway construction."

In Lewin's Malibu houses, he says, "You're probably looking at a quarter of the cost of the entire project going into the stabilization of the site."

The most common problem for homeowners, says veteran Nantucket engineer John Shugrue, "is being in too much of a hurry and not doing the research. Most people don't want the foundation part of the job to take too long. They can't see where the money is going, so they think they're paying for nothing. In reality," he explains, "the foundation is the most important part of the job, because it holds everything else up."

When the foundation is in place, New York architect John R. Kirk argues for "threaded rods that go all the way from foundation up through the framing to the rafters," providing the bones of the structure. "Plus shear walls," he says, explaining that these reinforced interior walls will resist twisting when the house is hit by high winds. Architects also reinforce weak points, such as large windows, with steel tubing.

In the Pacific Northwest, architects use large roof overhangs on decks and porches to protect siding and windows from the region's notorious rain. Without careful planning, overhangs can become virtual sails, exposed to uplift that can pry a roof off its walls. Washington architect Peter Brachvogel guards against uplift by using threaded steel cables and extending the roofline with beefed-up rafters to support the eaves. "And we tie the building together with all kinds of hardware," says Peter.

This hardware includes clips and connectors refined through years of storm experience. Connectors fortify vulnerable points that link floors, walls, rafters, and roofs. And because they're almost impossible to retrofit, they must be installed correctly during construction.

Tim Reinhold, vice president of engineering for the insurance industry's Institute for Business and Home Safety, took a survey of Florida's recently affected areas. He says little things, such as properly installed connectors, influenced the survival rate of homes. "In Charley, where we had gusts of 140 to 150 mph," says Tim, "we didn't see roofs flying off houses."

Other easy choices, including the use of ring-shanked nails in close patterns to secure plywood sheathing on roofs, made a big difference in the region. So, too, did tight soffit systems designed to block rain penetration, yet allow for attic ventilation.

Tim noticed other details that protect against hurricane winds. Trimmed trees and properly tended landscaping fared well. Securely anchored fence sections were less likely to become airborne missiles. But, Tim warns, in wind gusts of 100 mph and higher, if anything can go wrong, it will. "Murphy's Law is alive and well in these conditions," he says.

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