The ultimate luxury in today’s custom homes? Disaster-proof design

From tornado rooms to hydrostatic flood vents, more clients are asking architects to design bunker-like features into their homes.

Beach Haven Residence, in Long Beach Island, New Jersey, by Specht Architects. The home was underway when Hurricane Sandy devastated the area; the architects put the home on stilts and added materials like fiberglass and steel to protect the structure. [Photo: courtesy Schiffer Publishing]

Remember Hurricane Michael? The deadly storm is still fresh in the memory of people on the Gulf Coast. But as author Boyce Thompson says in the introduction of his new book, Designing for Disaster, “in the United States, 100-year storms occur so frequently that people forget their names.”

[Photo: courtesy Schiffer Publishing]

Around this time last year, Michael was bearing down on the Gulf of Mexico. When the storm passed, news crews and reporters flocked to the Florida community of Mexico Beach to report on the neighborhood’s almost-complete devastation. “Almost,” because one home was left remarkably unscathed amid the utter devastation: The home of radiologist Dr. Lebron Lackey, who had spent nearly double the standard cost of a new home to fortify it against a storm like Michael.

“We wanted to build it for the big one,” Lackey told the New York Times last year. “We just never knew we’d find the big one so fast.”

While it was an unusual story, that kind of thinking is becoming more common amongst clients commissioning homes in disaster-prone areas. Thompson’s new tome is focused on this emerging genre of luxury architecture, which makes resilience a key amenity.

“Why not spend a little bit to design a house that’s going to last for generations?” as Thompson put it in a recent interview. “That used to be the goal, right? You buy a beautiful house, it would stay in the family for generations. But now with the threat of 100-year storms occurring more frequently than ever, you have to take extra precautions.”

In fact, some argue it’s time to get rid of the idea of “100-year storms” completely. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, a home that sits in a “100-year storm” floodplain actually has a 26% chance of being flooded within 30 years. However, the adoption of more stringent building codes has been slow, in part because industry groups tend to fight any policy that could make construction more expensive. While some architecture firms are beginning to specialize in particular aspects of resilience, like flooding, Thomspon says it was usually the clients who requested the specialized engineering features.

“[F]or the most part, it’s the Wild West,” he says. “The homeowners kind of figure out, on their own, what really matters.”

Many of these single-family homes reflect the cognitive dissonance of the slow-motion crisis enveloping the planet: They are both glassy pieces of architectural indulgence, and carefully engineered, bunker-like pieces of precision infrastructure.

[Photo: courtesy Schiffer Publishing]

In the most compelling cases, the engineering helps articulate the architectural character: Take architect Bruce Beinfield‘s fascinating home on the coast of Connecticut. The building has a long, narrow, vernacular New England look to it at first glance—but each of its architectural features correspond to an engineering choice. Salvaged wood offers lateral bracing against gale-force winds. Large windows are framed by roll-down steel shutters. Flood vents and piers allow the building to flood without being seriously damaged.

Thompson devotes chapters on homes designed to survive flooding, wildfires, or mud slides, and more generally, extended power outages. But he also trains his eye on projects meant to withstand natural disasters that have been around since time immemorial, like a home designed to withstand a tsunami on the Washington coastline, for instance. These clients clearly know the risks of living on coastlines or in fire zones, and are willing to pay for measures that protect themselves and their real estate.

[Photo: Schiffer Publishing]

Research shows that it will be increasingly difficult to find locations in America that aren’t in the path of  devastating climate change-related disasters. Yet the homes featured represent a vanishingly small segment of the real estate market; the number of homeowners who can afford to commission their own homes—much less pay for innovative resilience features—is tiny. The AIA estimates that just 2% of all homes in the U.S. are designed by architects at all (for context, some 1.2 million homes were finished in the U.S. in August alone). The number of those that are focused on resilience is even smaller.

Thompson thinks the innovations will eventually trickle down. Much will depend on communities establishing stronger building codes. Moore, Oklahoma, is a telling example: In 2014, the town adopted a new tornado code that borrows engineering technology commonly found in coastal zones, like “hurricane clips” that attach the roof to the walls, and new rafter-spacing guidelines. As Thompson reports, the new code only adds $1.50 or $2.00 per square foot in costs. “Even so,” he concludes, “few jurisdictions in Tornado Alley have followed Moore’s lead.”

The U.S. is desperately in need of more housing units, and of renovation programs to make existing housing more resilient. As Designing for Disaster helps underline, the problem isn’t technological—it’s systemic.