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Passive Survivability —How Long Could Your Structure “Drift”?

12/2/2013 3:35:21 PM
Article by John D. Wagner

I’m one of eight kids (born within ten years of one another), and one day when we were all little, Dad and Mom packed us all up on an undersized, underpowered rental boat for a day of touring the New Jersey beaches. The boat soon broke down, and I remember my Mom washing peanut butter off my face because she said she wanted me to look nice when the Coast Guard took us all to jail. (The boat had a legal limit of 5 people not 10.) As we waited for the Coasties, I asked my Mom how long we’d be able to stay alive if we just, you know, drifted out to sea. She glanced at the half-empty cooler and at 10 hungry mouths, and—always with an Irish flair for the dramatic—she said, “maybe a couple of hours?”

Now “drift” is a term used to describe structures. If there’s extreme weather or a terror attack on our energy distribution system, and you were cut off from civilization, how long could you drift? Food, water, HVAC, sure, you’ll need to account for that. But the term also refers to the resiliency of the structure, it’s so-called passive survivability. To put it another way: How long will a structure be stable and habitable in the absence of water, power, and energy?

What does this have to do with building materials? Well, the topic of passive survivability may not have been top of mind among designers and architects, until…well, until events like these became more increasingly commonplace: 9-11, Katrina, hurricane Irene, Superstorm Sandy, Global Warming, rising sea levels, or First of October killer storms like we recently saw in South Dakota (hours of rain, followed by hours of wet snow and 60 mph wind gusts). Now building design professionals are increasingly ready to design passive survivability features into homes, including walls that allow the home to stay above 50 degrees, even with little or no access to outside energy (an ability to “drift” a little longer than a small boat with 10 people). That means super-insulated walls >R-40; roofing at >R-50; triple-glazed windows at /or great than R-5 (0.09 BTU/hr.ft2.F), fenestration patterns that capture heat and shed cold in colder climates, and in warmer climate, passive ventilation that allows you to live somewhat comfortably with no AC. If you don’t step up to triple-glaze windows to save the 25% cost premium, then at least use windows with impact-resistant glass that’s tested to the AAMA standards for High Velocity Hurricane Zones, the Miami-Dade and Broward County specifications for the Florida Building Commission, and/or the Texas Department of Insurance Evaluation for the Texas Coast.

For some designers or homeowners who are focused on preparation, windows, doors, and walls that offer a structure passive survivability are just the beginning of the effort to fortify a home. You no longer have to have a tin foil hat and an eye out for aliens to spec other features in homes or structures like water storage, generators that run on natural gas that’s stored onsite in tanks, solar panels, and increasingly popular shelter-in-place “hurricane safe rooms.” The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) even has a resilient homes program and website called Resilient Homes: Last Room Standing.

The problem with convincing people that safe rooms are essential in disaster-prone areas (AL, FL, GA, KY, MS, SC, and TN) was succinctly stated on the website: “Homeowners are well-aware that safe rooms can save their lives. Yet they see little value in investing in something that would be used so little, or perhaps not at all. For that kind of cash [about $10,000 to build a safe room], they’d rather buy a home theater or remodel their kitchen. So the [DHS] team decided to brand safe rooms as a home-furnishing project—something fun rather than a necessary evil.”

Even with the reluctance of people to spend money on preparedness, the graphic images of ruined homes where it was once considered unthinkable that a storm would kill hundreds and wipe out thousands of structures (I’m not talking about below-sea-level New Orleans or Mobile, AL, but New York City!) will surely inspire people to invest in the materials and learn the practices for keeping their families safe and their homes intact. Either way, no matter where you are located, this is an opportunity for architects, designers, contractors, manufacturers, and dealers to educate, upsell, and help install the latest passive survivability building systems. After all, there’s nothing green about a house that can’t stand up to the elements.

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