Building to Last: Safe Harbor

One family's new Florida home emerges unscathed from a brutal hurricane season, thanks to modern building methods.
By Ben Brown

During last year's hurricane season, Fort Pierce, a town on Florida's southeastern coast, was ground zero for Frances and Jeanne, two of four storms that wrought devastation on the state. The Peed family's new home, tucked off the Intracoastal Waterway, was hammered by the storms' 100-mph-plus winds and driving rain. "You could see waves crashing in our front yard," says Brooks Peed. The experience, he admits, "was eye-opening."

So if any family knows what works in storm-resistant housing, it's the Peeds. When they bought property in the historic enclave of St. Lucie Village a dozen years ago, they first lived in a home that had stood waterside since 1907. Then Brooks, his wife, Lori, and their three daughters decided to build a new house on the property. From the outset, they impressed upon architect Lynn Silkworth that they wanted to retain the historic structure's Old Florida feel. Particularly, Lynn says, the family wanted to incorporate wide porches and overhangs and plenty of windows and doors to bring the coastal environment inside.

Lynn knew the porches, if not engineered properly, could be vulnerable to high winds. And while the windows and doors welcomed sunlight, they also could be weak spots during storms if the right products were not installed correctly.

To ensure that the new structure would fare as well as the property's century-old home, Lynn turned to modern technology. To tie the foundation to the walls and roof, he required some 100 half-inch steel rods anchored in the cement foundation, threaded through the walls, and bolted into the rafters three stories up. When the tension on the rods was increased, the whole house became lashed into one system anchored securely in the foundation.

Inside, the architect prescribed shear walls: plywood reinforcement beneath drywall on either side of wall studs that prevents structural twisting in high winds. And he made the pantry off the kitchen a safe room, a space with no openings to the exterior and strengthened by shear walls.

A year after construction was complete, the Peeds decided to stay in their home during two fierce hurricanes. The family is not likely to forget the sound of roofing nails popping out of asphalt shingles in 120-mph winds, Brooks says. While only evacuation can guarantee personal security in a hurricane, the architectural and structural features helped spare the Peeds' home―and protected the family. "We felt safe," says Brooks, who rode out the storms in the pantry safe room.