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By John Biggs
February 20, 2018
By any measure, extreme weather has become a far more regular occurrence than it has been over the past several decades. From increasingly intense wildfires in the west, to more powerful and damaging hurricanes in the south and along the eastern seaboard, to increased levels of devastating flooding. This has a drastic effect on city populations and infrastructure, particularly in those cities at or near sea-level.
In response to this growing threat, builders and building owners are looking at ways to improve structures’ ability to withstand such natural phenomena, to save lives, protect their investments and also ensure regular building operations can quickly resume, even after a devastating weather event like a flood or storm.
This is being done in a number of ways. Through retrofitting existing structures to resist flood or storm damage, new construction specifically engineered to be storm-resistant, and even changing where buildings are being constructed to keep them out of the danger zone from the outset.
Construction in Earthquake-Prone Areas
Obviously, the types of natural disasters certain regions are prone to will dictate the methods used in resilience-minded construction. Engineers building in an area that experiences earthquakes, for example, typically favor more symmetrical structures so seismic waves are more evenly distributed. They also limit external ornamentation, which could become dislodged during an earthquake and come crashing down to the street level causing fatalities.
An emerging innovation, the so-called “seismic invisibility cloak,” involves burying a series of concentric plastic rings beneath a building’s foundation. Those rings compress the seismic waves and redirect them away from the structure itself, enabling them to pass by the building’s foundation altogether.
Getting Ahead of the Floods
In flood zones, engineers are taking steps to prevent damaging water or storm surges from reaching structures entirely. This entails a focus on carefully designed drainage capabilities that re-route water away from structures, building barriers or seawalls, or elevating buildings on pillars through extended foundations.
Another preventative method engineers are deploying is to elevate HVAC systems to higher floors, which lessens the likelihood of them being damaged in severe weather and disrupting the building’s operation. Of course, the truly devastating weather events aren’t always predictable, so it’s not always possible to keep flood water away from buildings in every case.
Techniques like increasing water tightness of walls, water-resistant membranes and insulated metal structural panels are being used to keep water that does reach structures from getting inside, which is when the real damage occurs. Materials like concrete are much more resistant to water damage than wood, so much of the new home construction in hurricane or flood-prone areas are built using more resilient materials.
Fire Resistant Building
Wildfires are another growing threat devastating entire neighborhoods surrounded by highly flammable forests, made even more combustible because of increased drought conditions. As with water, keeping fire out of a structure is the first line of defense to preventing devastating damage. A good place to start in protecting homes and buildings from fire is to build using fire-resistant materials like cement, plaster and stucco, or masonry materials like stone or brick.
Double-paned glass windows provide additional resistance from fire entering a structure, especially tempered glass, which resists breakage even at high heat. Class A roofing tiles are the best bet for fire resistance, and according to FEMA, wood roof shingles, even those rated for fire resistance, are to be avoided. Ditto chemically treated materials, which wear down over time, leaving the roof vulnerable to fire damage. Areas of the home particularly vulnerable to fire damage, like eaves, soffits and attic vents, should be enclosed in noncombustible materials. Vinyl is a popular material for siding, but once it melts away it can create a pathway for the fire to enter the structure.
As natural disasters continue to worsen and increase in frequency, designers and engineers are looking at new methods to preserve and protect structures from damage or total destruction. Building specifically with resilience in mind will save lives, and prevent countless millions in lost infrastructure in the event of a major weather event.
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