Breezy Point is beautiful in the summertime, a quaint Queens neighborhood sitting on a slim peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic just south of New York City.
In a storm, though, that dreamy setting can become a nightmare.
Breezy Point was devastated by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Flooding, high winds, and fires destroyed more than 300 homes, with many more left damaged and unlivable. Now, seven years later, architect Illya Azaroff has designed and built a home there he says can withstand a storm even more powerful than Sandy, "maintaining operation, even if all else fails.''
Welcome to the home of the future in a time of climate change. As weather gets wilder and less predictable, firms that design, construct, or improve housing with storm safety and resiliency in mind are increasingly in demand, said Matt Belcher, a builder in tornado-prone St. Louis. It’s a powerful marketing message that cuts across the political divide, he said.
“The frequency and severity of the storms are increasing,” said Belcher, who builds houses designed to withstand 140-mph winds. “Whether people credit it to climate change or think it’s cyclical, it doesn’t matter if your house is destroyed. Either way, resiliency applies.”
In 2008, the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, an industry research group, created a set of construction standards that generally exceed local building codes, certifying that a home is likely to survive hurricane-force winds and rain.
The needle barely moved on the number of homes meeting the designation in a handful of hurricane-prone states from 1,122 in 2008 to 1,638 in 2014. By 2018, the number jumped to 11,031 homes, and it has moved to 12,530 in the first four months of 2019.
The “fortified” designation is provided by trained evaluators primarily based in Texas, Florida, the Carolinas, and Alabama, though the institute is now expanding the numbers of states they serve. In some areas, the designation can help homeowners with insurance and renovation costs.
“When the consumer has a different perception of the risk, it changes the demands they make on home builders,” said Roy Wright, the group’s leader and a former head of risk mitigation at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “The home building industry will respond to the market.”
The Breezy Point design by Brooklyn-based Azaroff, who also serves as the New York disaster coordinator for the American Institute of Architects, keeps Sandy’s devastation in mind, from the bottom up:
The house is elevated more than three feet above average flood elevation, with open concrete posts sunk deep into the ground and vents that let flowing water easily escape underneath the house.
The walls and floor are made with concrete-filled forms made from polystyrene and recycled plastic that can withstand driving rain and 300-mph winds.
It has fire-resistant fiber cement-board siding, and inflexible, interlocking polymer roof shingles locked in with screws. Safety glass in the windows can withstand a nine-pound piece of wood flying at 34 mph.
The roof is held in place with ultra-strong connectors.
Cost remains key for homeowners. The hurricane-strong house, as Azaroff has labeled it, is 7 percent to 9 percent more expensive to build. But with energy and insurance savings, the upgrades should pay for themselves in 8 to 10 years, according to Azaroff.
Rima Taher, a civil and structural engineer who teaches at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, has published the textbook Building Design for Wind Forces. The strategies behind recent improvements in housing resiliency can be attributed to improved building codes based on research in wind engineering that started back in the 1960s, she said.
“We have more knowledge in this field now, and building codes and standards are stronger,” Taher said.
Taher frequently gets calls for advice, she said, noting that a couple of important things to focus on are roof design and strong connections between walls, between the walls and the roof, and between the structure and its foundation. Taher advises "hurricane ties," or straps, to join the roof tightly to walls, and says roofs should be designed with multiple slopes with overhangs limited to less than 20 inches.
"The roof can be the first thing to go," she said.
But it’s not just new houses being worked on with extreme weather in mind. Older houses on the East Coast offer other opportunities for builders. In the Carolinas and on New York’s Long Island, local contractors have raised hundreds of houses six to eight feet higher within the last few years, taking advantage of government programs that popped up after major hurricanes.
Mike Rom’s company, Long Island House Lifting, now raises 45 to 50 homes a year at a cost of $150,000 to $300,000 apiece.
Following Hurricane Sandy, he said, “every other house is up in some neighborhoods.” But it’s not just the big storms that are a problem, according to Rom. Shoreline areas that used to see street flooding at most two or three times a year now see it monthly.