Future Proofing

July 12th, 2021 by Nathan Hobbs

Doors and Windows Find a Niche in Resilient Homes

By Drew Vass

The U.S. has sustained 238 weather- and climate-related disasters since 1980—each exceeding $1 billion in total damages (by today’s standards). The combined costs? More than $1.5 trillion. As they say, “That’s trillion with a T.” Traditionally, our nation has averaged six events per year ranging in the $1 billion or more category, but the past five years have been consistently worse, logging around 12 each. As of October, 2018 had already seen its dozen, making it a record year—just behind 2016 and 2017. And that’s a hat trick that experts suggest cannot be chocked up to coincidence.

In other words, “We’re seeing more and more disasters, more and more people in harms way, more and more houses and buildings in vulnerable areas,” says Ryan Colker, vice president for the National Institute of Building Sciences. “I think people are starting to recognize that it’s really unsustainable to keep trying to recover from these types of events.”

One Lonely Example

Following Hurricane Michael, one house in Mexico Beach, Fla., grabbed national news lines by being the only structure left in an area that otherwise looked like a war zone. Built in 2017, “Sand Palace” was reinforced with concrete, rebar, steel cables and a specially-designed roof. But, along with those reinforcements, reporters were also quick to cue in on the home’s windows. Representatives for Custom Window Systems Inc., based in Ocala, Fla., told DWM that the home was outfitted with 800 Series WindPact Plus doors and windows from CWS, which are made to withstand a wind pressure of 70 and wind speeds of up to 180 mph.

Unsustainable? To keep, “trying to recover?”

While the cause for those increases is hotly debated (no pun intended, and we’re not interested in delving into that here), what’s not debatable are the economic impacts. To Colker’s point: In 2016, the United States’ Congressional Budget Office raised a red flag over the issue, by publishing a report showing that damages from hurricanes alone are expected to increase more rapidly than the economy will grow. Without preemptive measures, costs associated with relief and recovery could reach approximately $24 billion annually, the report suggests. Those costs are not only associated with increases in catastrophic, weather-related events, but also the fact that more houses are being added in hurricane-prone areas—despite annual losses. Meanwhile, data com-piled by Zillow Research in November 2018 shows that, by 2050, more than 386,000 existing homes in U.S. coastal areas are likely to be at risk of permanent inundation from sea level rise or chronic flooding. The total value of those properties Zillow estimates to be around $209.6 billion—more than four times the estimated insured losses from Hurricane Katrina. Ignoring those figures, some analysts suggest, is downright foolish when it comes to investing. And no one is eyeing that fact harder than the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“I think if we do nothing, costs are going to continue to go up, and that’s probably not a good option,” says Jon Westcott, an engineer in FEMA’s Building Science branch. “If you’re going to build a home, you want it to be there for 50 years,” he says. “What’s the environment going to look like 50 years from now, and can you build in a way today that either can with-stand that environment, or be easily retrofitted?”

That’s a question that insurers, architects, builders and code officials have asked for years. In recent times though—and for obvious reasons—the concept of resilient design has reached a critical boil.

“In the last five or so years, there’s been an upswing in knowledge, commitment and implementation among architects,” says Greg Beste, an architect, former Disaster Assistance Committee member and Safety Assessment instructor for American Institute of Architects. Beste says there’s also an increased focus on educating clients about key benefits.

Ground Rules

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers defines resilient structures as those that:
• Maintain their primary functions during the anticipated scale of a disruption;
• Allow for variability in scale of disruptions or changing conditions without losing functionality;
• Do not fail catastrophically during extreme events; and
• Help to meet specific community recovery goals after an event occurs.

In 2012, the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) organized a Fortified Home program around this concept, including a new prescription of construction standards and methods that go above and beyond everyday codes. So far as why insurers would choose to do so (IBHS, which labels itself an “independent, nonprofit, scientific research and communications organization,” is supported solely by insurers) is fairly obvious, says Jeffrey Inks, senior vice president of advocacy for the Window and Door Manufacturers Association (WDMA). “Insurance companies have a lot to benefit,” he says. “If you build homes stronger, they’ll be paying out less [in] damages.” But evidence also suggests that the insurance industry isn’t in it strictly for selfish reasons. In some areas of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and North Carolina, for instance, laws and regulations now provide financial incentives to lower the costs for premiums on wind insurance on resilient homes, as well as recoup some of the expenses related to retrofitting.

IBHS’s Fortified Home program includes three categories of fortification, based on specific needs for certain areas (hurricane, wind and hail, for instance). Within each category, there are three levels of designation: bronze, silver and gold, for which homes must document specific upgrades. In order to achieve gold-level designation for hurricane standards, all doors, windows and skylights must be impact-rated.

“If you can keep those sealed and safe from wind-borne debris, that is also a very effective mechanism for keeping homes safe,” Colker says. But not every improvement has to be as expensive as impact-rated windows, either. Laboratory tests have shown that something as simple as using an outswing door prevents some houses from, “being blown to pieces,” he says. It’s about understanding what particular hazards a structure may encounter, “Then, how do you construct buildings to withstand that,” he says.

Powering Up

The Army Corps of Engineers defines resilient homes as those that do more than just stand up to the elements without catastrophically failing; they’re also expected to maintain their primary functions. “My goal is to ensure that residences are survivable and habitable after a disaster,” Beste says. “I want to get communities back up and running.”

And that’s a goal that some architects and builders say meshes well with another concept: zero-energy consumption, or buildings that produce at least as much energy as they consume.

“They go hand-in-hand,” says Kiere DeGrandchamp, head of construction for High Performance Homes, a custom builder that’s based in Gettysburg, Pa., regarding his net-zero, resilient homes. But you don’t have to go so far as net-zero in order to achieve resiliency, he adds. In colder climates, resiliency calls for super-efficient homes to maintain comfortable living environments; in warmer climates the concept calls for operable windows.

“Think of a refrigerator,” he says. “Once you close the door, it doesn’t require a lot of energy to keep it maintained.” For example, it was a cold weekend when, “On Friday, I put on the emergency heat and warmed [one of his houses] up to 63 degrees, then set it to kick back on at 55,” he says. “I closed the doors and nobody entered until Monday.” And despite cold temperatures, the heat never activated. “If you’re smart about it and don’t open your windows and doors, you can stay in there for weeks when it’s cold,” he says.

To achieve those levels of efficiency, DeGrandchamp, who is the 2018 grand winner of the Department of Energy’s Housing Innovation Award, goes all out—including with doors and windows. In basements, he utilizes a system called Superior Wall, which is made of composite materials, providing R-21 performance and 8,000 pounds per square-inch (PSI) of shear strength for resistance to wind and water. In walls, he uses 6-1/2-inch-thick, structurally insulated panels (SIPs), providing R-30 and around 7,000 psi strength. (Standard two-by-six walls produce 1,500 psi.) He applies an inch of insulating spray foam to the top of drywall in ceilings, then adds 18 inches of blown-in insulation over that, for a total of R-56. In the end, his homes are designed not only to be net-zero, but to withstand earthquakes and winds in excess of 200 mph without damage. As a result, when it comes to specifying doors and windows, DeGrandchamp says he applies an extra level of scrutiny.

First, he calculates the total square footage of all door and window openings, relative to a home’s exterior. In percentages that span around 17 per-cent of total wall space or higher—no matter what codes call for—he adjusts U-factor ratings.

He also carefully weighs design pressure (DP) ratings, to match the resiliency of the overall structure. IIHS’s Fortified Home program takes a similar approach, with specifications varying for each window.

Proof of Concept

There’s more than just anecdotal evidence to support the resilient homes concept, Westcott says. And he should know. As part of FEMA’s Building Science branch, he’s one of numerous representatives who visit disaster-struck areas to assess post-incident damages.

“When you go to these neighborhoods that have been hit by these disasters, you go down the street and you see house after house where there’s a big pile of belongings, insulation and drywall on the sidewalk,” Westcott says. Then, every once in a while, you come across a lonely house that somehow faired the event. “I’ve seen people having cocktail hour on their porch, while their neighbors are worried about all their belongings,” he says.

By dissecting those situations, Westcott says FEMA is developing its own playbook for resilient construction, which the agency will present to the International Code Council.

While there will be costs associated with more stringent requirements, even with those line items to bear, more resilient structures will pay dividends, Westcott and others suggest. For instance, a report produced in January 2018 by the National Institute of Building Sciences suggests that mitigation grants funded through select federal government agencies can save the nation, on average, $6 in future disaster costs for every $1 spent on mitigation. Incentives also have proven to pay off for insurers. In 2001, Florida required new construction to comply with national standards for wind and flood resistance. As a result, between 2001 and 2010, compliant homes saw a 53 percent reduction in paid insured losses from windstorm hazards.

And the concept isn’t reserved for the most expensive houses. In Panama City, according to local news reports, five Habitat for Humanity houses stood firm through Hurricane Michael. “This is not something that costs tens of thousands of dollars,” says Roy Wright, president and CEO of IBHS. “This is within reach of anyone to fortify their roof, windows and doors. Homeowners just have to be armed with the right questions.”

Opportunities Exist

So far, we found no evidence that door and window manufacturers are pushing those questions out through marketing, based around the resilient home concept. When we reached out to manufacturers, none indicated that they’re expecting to see an increased demand for impact-rated products. But foregoing the opportunity to market along those lines—especially among new homes—would be a mistake, says Colker.

“I think there’s an opportunity for builders to be proactive and, you know … to sell themselves as resilient builders, because they put in these particular products, which then lead to a safer house.”

The same opportunity exists for door and window dealers, Inks suggests, by explaining to homeowners, “Okay, this is the minimum that’s required,” he says. “But, if you really want to make your home strong, why don’t you put in impact-resistant glazing?”

Ultimately, that’s the avenue that Westcott sees driving the resilient home concept more than any other.

“People are going to see that storms are becoming more intense, that flooding is changing, and that there’s economic sense in doing it, so they’re going to want to take some action,” he says.

And that’s a message that everyone agrees could move beyond coastal areas.

“Just recently, you see how far hurricanes go inland, or at least hurricane-force winds,” Beste says. “You also have tornadoes within the tornado belt. But these days, where is tornado ally?”

Ultimately, the more stringent codes that follow coastlines may make the same migration.

And while he suggests that the larger issue might be in how many existing homes fail to meet code requirements, “I think the question comes in, then, in terms of should we be putting in these features that we now are only putting in areas that have been identified as higher hazards?” Inks says.

Drew Vass is the editor of DWM magazine.

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