The Climate-Safe Houses of the Future

The Climate-Safe Houses of the Future
Illustration: Angelica Alzona/Gizmodo

When Brandon Jorgensen picked up the phone, he was in the middle of staging his latest house in Napa, California. “We are getting very very close to, I wouldn’t say fireproofing, but fire-resisting a house,” Jorgensen, an architect, said, speaking from the home’s driveway. He described the 20-centimetre wall of the house he’s building, layered like a cake.

There’s a corrugated steel skin, a vapour barrier, aluminium foil-layered fiberboard, cement, and some fire-resistant drywall, all of which create a series of challenges for a potential fire to work through. When all is said and done, this house, Jorgensen said, has around a four-hour fire rating, meaning that “a fire could be right next to it, burning for four hours at [760 degrees Celsius], and the house would stand.”

As climate change hits our world, our homes are increasingly coming under attack from raging fires, fierce storms, skyrocketing temperatures, and rising seas. The idea of weather-resilient homes of the future often conjure up images of Jetsons-like cities floating on water or geodesic domes that guard against heavy wind or rain. The eco-cool mansions of the rich and famous, which are often front-and-centre in architectural publications, can make anyone think that the future of sustainable and climate-resilient homes are only for the wealthy and imaginative.

But, experts say, building climate-resilient homes is actually possible now — and they look a lot like the homes or apartments of the present day. Some of the things blocking our homes from becoming as resilient as they can be aren’t the need for new technologies, but simply a question of shaking up the world of regulations and code.

Jorgensen creates drool-worthy, cool California homes; you’d expect that his fireproof houses would cost a pretty penny more than the already expensive price tag required to build in the area. But Jorgensen said that his team is using low-tech design that doesn’t cost a lot extra to make the houses as safe as possible. “I try to set a situation up where you’re not reliant on technology” for fireproofing, he said. “It’s a question of a professional like me understanding the means and methods [of climate resilience] and then putting a team together to figure this all out, versus just going along and doing what’s been done before.”

Jesse Keenan, an associate professor in the school of architecture at Tulane University, pointed out how our homes are already being subtly influenced by climate change. “Architecture has been adapting to changing environments since the beginning of architecture,” he said. Just last year, he said, the American Society of Refrigeration, Heating, and Engineers, which puts out guidance maps for air conditioning regulations, updated its maps to allow for larger air conditioning units in more states because of rising heat.

“AC is moving further north,” he said. “Now, we need to think about larger units in places where we might have only had smaller units.”

Climate-proofing a house, meanwhile, often starts not with walls, but with the yard outside. For Jorgensen, making his homes fire-resistant includes setting low walls in the landscape to keep embers blowing along the ground from getting too close to the house. Other types of landscaping like mulch- and stone-filled gardens and hardy shrubs with less moisture can help discourage fires from spreading as can so-called “defensible space” clear of any type of vegetation. New California regulations slated to be developed by 2023 will require an “ember-resistant zone” around houses.

Homeowners living in fire-prone areas aren’t the only ones that need to think about their yards; for those in the paths of hurricanes, it’s also crucial to consider the trees that can fall during storms and destroy homes. A series of recommendations issued by the University of Florida based on a study that surveyed how hurricanes impacted trees in the Southeast between 1998 and 2005 advises that native species often fare best in heavy winds. Other tactics like planting trees in clusters to strengthen root systems and having cities and towns routinely remove dead or dying trees that could fall in storms are also among the recommendations. Dead or non-native tree on a property can be an equity issue, too. “The insurance companies, when they see dead trees [in the yard], they jack up the cost on the home,” Keenan said, which poses a problem for homeowners who can’t afford to remove problem trees from their properties.

Both Jorgensen and Keenan mentioned how the building industry is developing new materials that are more fireproof or extremely resistant to mould, the latter of which could be helpful not just in hurricanes but in the case of other types of floods.

Some people preparing for the future, however, are less interested in the possibilities of high tech solutions and more interested in helping people who can only afford the basic stuff. Those mould-resistant walls would likely come in handy for those who faced flooding in Detroit last month. But many affected community members barely have insurance to cover what was lost, let alone building back more resiliently. While prices might go down in the future, “those materials are horrendously expensive,” said Elizabeth English, a professor at the University of Waterloo School of Architecture and the founder of the Buoyant Foundation Project. “I’m trying to do this for people with fewer resources.”

English’s work on amphibious homes showcases how climate-proofing homes can be relatively inexpensive — but doing so can run up against outdated regulations. She was studying how wind-borne debris affects architecture at Louisiana State University’s Hurricane Centre in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit. She toured the city while the water was still high and afterward and saw soaked homes covered in mould.

“In New Orleans after Katrina, quite a number of houses lifted up off their foundations and floated into the middle of the street,” she said. “The houses were floating unintentionally, but I wanted to try the idea of retrofitting houses so they’d float on purpose.”

There are historic examples of houses that can float on flooded land from Thailand to the Netherlands; English found that in some areas of Louisiana, people were already building shotgun-style houses specially retrofitted in a way that allowed them to rise and fall with the water. Her resulting design for what she calls an “amphibious” house is based on retrofitting existing homes with a special crawlspace and posts that gently guide the home up and down with the water while keeping it from floating away. This kind of design emphasises working with existing homes rather than building new ones in order to be as helpful as possible to communities already in flood-prone areas. English’s team has since done pilot retrofits with rice farmers in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam and is working on floating house projects in Nicaragua and with First Nations communities in Canada.

“It doesn’t stop the water from rising, but it means that your house and all your belongings, your possessions, everything you live with is not going to be wiped away by a flood,” she said. “When you move, it’s not going to be in the face of a disaster or all that trauma.”

Listening to English, who said that the cost to make a house amphibious starts at $US20 ($27) per square foot in the U.S., it’s hard not to wonder why we’re not roaming around the country retrofitting every house on a floodplain this way. Raising homes on stilts — one of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s preferred retrofit methods — can, English said, start at $US60 ($80) per square foot and can be upwards of $US120 ($160) per square foot. FEMA only reimburses people after the changes are made, meaning people without the substantial up-front cash and good credit needed to raise their houses are out of luck.

But thanks to a byzantine set of rules and concerns raised by FEMA — including the worry that approving amphibious homes will allow people to settle in areas increasingly prone to flooding — the agency has mandated that homes retrofitted in flood-prone areas be “adequately anchored to prevent flotation.” That rules out amphibious homes. Similarly, there are no standardised building codes for amphibious houses anywhere in the world; English said she’s working on developing guidelines that could eventually be building codes for amphibious retrofits for simple houses in Canada.

Embers falls from burning palms as flames close in on a house at the Woolsey Fire. (Photo: David McNew, Getty Images)

Jorgensen has similar frustrations with how a lack of guidance from building authorities is making houses less safe. The homes he builds have no vents, which can be entry points for fire to get inside the house, and gutters that run underground, which prevent a buildup of dead leaves and debris that can act as kindling. These tweaks, he said, are not too expensive, are within regulations, and can add valuable time to how long a home can withstand a raging fire. But they require the builder to have some imagination, something building codes seem to almost discourage.

“Any normal contractor, they’re going to say that’s impossible, it’s code, you have to have the gutter and you have to have the vents,” he said. “I say, if you research the code, a gutter doesn’t have to be on the house, it can be in the ground. If you insulate the attic, guess what: You just got rid of all your vents. If you get rid of all the vents and gutters, boom. You just added 1 or 2 hours automatically to the house.”

And a lack of updated codes or enforced change in design doesn’t just mean that innovative solutions, like underground gutters, aren’t being more widely used. It also means that mistakes of the past can be repeated by homeowners in a rush to rebuild and contractors not thinking outside the box. Jorgensen lives near Atlas Peak in Napa, where the Atlas Fire roared in 2017.

“If you drive up Atlas Peak Road, every single one of those houses had wood decks before [the fire], and every single house was gone because of those wooden decks,” he said. “If you drive back up there now, they all have wooden decks again.” (The home he’s designing, Jorgensen explained, has a deck that uses thicker timber cantilevered farther out from the house to discourage it from going up in flames.)

At the end of the day, regardless of what codes are in place where, the real long-term question, Keenan said, is not what types of materials will make a house more resistant, but whether or not we need to abandon building structures in climate-doomed areas altogether. It’s already happening in some places. Individuals are making more climate-conscious decisions about where they buy homes, and research has shown people are retreating from the coasts. California this month started looking at policies to discourage building in wildfire-prone zones. A super-fire-resistant home can buy time, but it will probably go up in flames at some point if wildfires rip through consistently each year. Meanwhile, there’s not much you can do for a house that is consistently flooding.

“We need to remove the cost of tearing down buildings and moving people,” Keenan said.

English, however, said her work is focused more on the realistic short-term of what will be likely the biggest problem over the next decade: helping people in flood-prone areas buy time. “I want to support the people who are already in a community who don’t want to move, especially when flooding happens pretty rarely,” she said.

Jorgensen said builders need to get personal.

“When you build a home, you get to know the family, and you want to take care of them. You want to protect them,” he said. “A lot of builders are just printing money from the insurance company. They follow the code to the T and they walk away and could just care less. But for the rest of us, it’s like, what’s the legacy here? What are we going to leave for the people here?”