What Does It Take to Build a Disaster-Proof House?

A few homeowners across the country are trying to find out, by experimenting with new (and old) construction techniques.,

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When a massive wildfire swept through Paradise, Calif., three years ago this week, it killed 85 people and destroyed more than 13,000 homes. The wood chalet-style cabin where Mike and Jennifer Petersen lived — built by Ms. Petersen’s grandparents in the 1960s — was one of those homes.

“I don’t even have a good enough vocabulary to describe what that day was like,” said Mr. Petersen, who remembers driving through the fire to escape, with Ms. Petersen and their sons, who were 18 and 21. “It was nuts.”

The Petersens are now rebuilding on the same site — but not the way Ms. Petersen’s grandparents built. They’re putting up a Q Cabin, a 1,400-square-foot structure made from a half-circle of noncombustible steel. From the outside, the house, which cost just under $350,000, looks a little like a small, smartly designed airplane hangar. Inside, it’s an open-plan contemporary home.

Mr. Petersen, who manages a hardware store, one of the few surviving businesses in town, said he wanted to build a house that was both stylish and solid. “If there is going to be something that could survive a fire,” he said, “this would be it.”

The Petersens are not alone in their desire for a disaster-proof home. In natural-disaster-prone areas across the United States, homeowners are building houses designed to withstand a multitude of possible calamities. And while some of the technologies are experimental, they offer a glimpse of the future of construction in large swaths of the country, as climate change ushers in an era of more frequent wildfires, storms and floods.

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From the outside, the house, which cost just under $350,000 to build, looks a little like a small, smartly designed airplane hangar.Credit…Jason Henry for The New York Times
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Mr. Petersen, who manages a hardware store, one of the few surviving businesses in town, said he wanted to build a house that was both stylish and solid. Credit…Jason Henry for The New York Times

As much as a third of the housing stock in the United States — some 35 million houses — is at high risk from natural disasters related to climate change, according to information from CoreLogic, the real estate data analytics company. “These perils have always been there,” said Tom Larsen, a CoreLogic principal who does risk modeling. “But every time there’s a catastrophe that gets closer, people get that feeling of, ‘Wow, that could be me.'”

And climate-related catastrophes will likely get worse. CoreLogic predicts that 30 years from now, a typical strong coastal storm in Florida could flood 300,000 homes, more than triple the number affected today.

Vern Sneed, a general contractor and the founder of Design Horizons, the company that makes Q Cabins, said he initially became interested in this type of building — inspired by the Quonset huts manufactured during World War II to hold military supplies — because it could be constructed quickly and cheaply. (Although that has changed recently, with labor shortages and material costs rising.) He also liked the unusual shape, which made Q Cabins stand out among other prefabricated homes when he started marketing them in 2010.

Later, he realized that because the houses he was selling were almost entirely steel, they were fire resistant. So he added noncombustible sheathing, which he said makes the structures’ main materials noncombustible, in theory, up to 2,600 degrees. (In certain scenarios, he said, they could still burn, and none of the Q Cabins have been tested in real wildfires.) After the 2018 fire, Mr. Sneed moved his company to Chico, about 20 minutes from Paradise, to sell the factory-built Q Cabin kits to people rebuilding.

He has sold a handful in the area, he said, from small storage sheds to a 6,000-square-foot house, and about a dozen more are in the works, including one that Missy Barnard and her husband, David Barnard, are building. A former emergency room director, Ms. Barnard said they scrapped their plans to replace their 1970s ranch-style home with a conventional house when she discovered the Q Cabin.

“It’s cool as hell,” she said. “And it’s modern, and it’s noncombustible.”

The Barnards are building it themselves, for the most part, working six or seven days a week, which has been challenging. But once it’s done, Ms. Barnard said, “I’m not leaving this house ever again.”

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Missy Barnard and her husband, David Barnard, are building another Q Cabin in Paradise, Calif. “It’s cool as hell,” Ms. Barnard said. “And it’s modern, and it’s noncombustible.”Credit…Jason Henry for The New York Times
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The Barnards are building it themselves, for the most part, working six or seven days a week, which has been challenging. But once it’s done, Ms. Barnard said, “I’m not leaving this house ever again.”Credit…Jason Henry for The New York Times

Others are looking further into the past than World War II for solutions — a lot further.

Michele Barbato, a professor of structural engineering in the department of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California at Davis, is studying compressed earth block construction, a 10,000-year-old technique for making bricks from tightly compacted dirt and mud, mixed with cement, limestone or a chemical stabilizer to make it water-resistant.

Testing in Dr. Barbato’s lab has showed that earth-block homes are fire-, hurricane- and wind-resistant, he said. But the best evidence, he added, may be in structures that have survived for thousands of years, like the Great Wall of China: “We can build the same type of structures today.”

Glenn Kelman, the chief executive of Redfin, the Seattle-based real estate brokerage, has invested in the technology because he thinks it’s a promising solution in a time of climate change. “People don’t change unless they have to,” he said. “We’re at the point where people have to.”

And homeowners like Will and Michelle Phinizy are giving it a try. Their previous house, a traditional wood-frame structure in a rural area outside Lubbock, Texas, was destroyed in a fire in 2019. “We watched it burn,” Mr. Phinizy said. “It was just a crumpled metal roof on the ground when the sun came up.”

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Will and Michelle Phinizy’s previous home in a rural area outside Lubbock, Texas, was destroyed in a fire in 2019. Their new home, which they have almost finished building, is made of compressed earth blocks.Credit…Dylan Cole for The New York Times
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The building material was readily available on their property. “We just dug up dirt,” Mr. Phinizy said, and then mixed it with 7 percent cement, turning it into 25,000 earth blocks.Credit…Dylan Cole for The New York Times

They hope that their new home — a 2,200-square-foot Tuscan ranch-style dwelling that they have almost finished building — will be fire-resistant, sustainable and sturdier. And there’s a bonus: The building material was readily available on their property.

“We just dug up dirt,” Mr. Phinizy said, and then mixed it with 7 percent cement, turning it into 25,000 earth blocks.

Ryan Runge, the president of Advanced Earthen Construction Technologies, who sold the couple their block-making machine, said the blocks are mold-proof and, when reinforced with rebar, earthquake-resistant. The walls are so thick that they retain heat in winter and remain cool enough in summer that air-conditioning isn’t necessary, at least on the first floor. “It’s like living in a cave,” Mr. Runge said.

But there’s a downside: Compressed earth block homes are labor-intensive to build and may not be any cheaper than wood-frame houses. The Phinizys’ home will cost a little over $150 a square foot — roughly in line with the estimates they got to build a conventional home.

As Mr. Phinizy put it: “It’s not all dirt cheap, so to speak.”

Earth blocks also weigh up to 40 pounds each, Mr. Runge said, which makes them difficult to transport in large quantities. Because of the high labor costs and low material cost, this construction method is more widely used in disaster-prone places like Haiti and Mexico, where labor is less expensive than in the United States, and on higher-end homes, whose owners can afford to pay more for labor and hire pricey structural engineers to help with the additional permitting. (Local building codes don’t usually account for earth-block construction, so a structural engineer has to sign off on these projects.)

But while it’s still a niche market — there are maybe a couple hundred earth-block homes in the United States — Mr. Runge said he has seen demand grow in the past year or so, as lumber costs have increased and natural disasters have taken a toll on housing.

For the first three years that he owned the company, Mr. Runge said he had about one house under construction every year. But this year, his fourth, there are five homes in the works. “We’re selling them faster than we can make them now,” he said of the earth-block-making machines.

On the waterfront in Florida, Gene and Tammy Tener are confronting a different kind of challenge.

The Teners bought a house in Crystal River in 2010, because of the area’s natural beauty. “We’ve got manatees that come right up to our dock, and dolphins that come up to the sea wall,” said Mr. Tener, a mechanical engineer. “For me, it was a dream come true.”

Less dreamy: the area’s frequent storms and floods.

When they bought the house, they noticed a water line on the curtains and the walls — a visible reminder of just how high the floodwaters had risen in the past. The couple repainted and used the home as a weekend retreat for a while. But a few years ago, they decided it was time to tear it down and build a place where they could live full time.

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On the waterfront in Florida, Gene and Tammy Tener built a Deltec home, designed to withstand winds of up to 190 miles an hour, according to the company.Credit…Todd Anderson for The New York Times
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The Teners’ house — an 18-sided, three-story structure with 180-degree views, 3,200-square-feet of living space and a garage — cost about $750,000 to build.Credit…Todd Anderson for The New York Times

They enlisted Deltec Homes, a North Carolina-based business that builds hurricane- and flood-resistant homes that it advertises as withstanding winds of up to 190 miles an hour. The Teners liked the curvilinear shape of the Deltec homes, which the company says helps the structures offset wind pressure by 30 percent. The house they built — an 18-sided, three-story structure with 180-degree views, 3,200-square-feet of living space and a garage — cost about $750,000.

“When the inspectors came, they said, ‘If we have a hurricane, I want to come here,'” said Ms. Tener, who works in early childhood education.

Deltec didn’t set out to build storm-resistant houses, said Steve Linton, the company’s president. In the 1960s, the company sold vacation rental properties that had a rounded shape to maximize views. But over time, clients began to notice that their dwellings fared better during strong storms and hurricanes than their neighbors’ did. By the 1990s, the company had redesigned them to withstand stronger winds and was marketing them as storm-resistant.

Since the company was founded in 1968, it has built more than 5,000 homes. And last year, Mr. Linton said, new orders were up 44 percent over the previous year. In part, that can be attributed to pandemic-related relocations, he said, but it’s also part of “a greater realization of climate change, and that we need to prepare our homes for future storms that have increasing intensity.”

Deltec is now working to develop homes that can withstand winds of up to 225 miles an hour. “The big picture is we’ve got to prepare ourselves for a future we might not understand yet,” Mr. Linton said.

According to the National Association of Home Builders, while most new homes are built to standards requiring them to be resistant to earthquakes, floods, blizzards, hurricanes and wildfires, the vast majority of homes in the United States — about 80 percent — were built before the 2000 International Residential Code and may need improvements to make them safer. But aesthetics and cost remain the major factors driving many homeowners’ design decisions, rather than the threat of future disasters.

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Nicole C. Close, the owner of a medical research company, and her husband, Chris Albrecht, built a Deltec home in Kitty Hawk, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.Credit…Jeremy M. Lange for The New York Times
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The two-story, 4,800-square-foot home has a game room with a shuffleboard, a poker table and a home theater.Credit…Jeremy M. Lange for The New York Times

Nicole C. Close, the owner of a medical research company, said that when she and her husband, Chris Albrecht, were building a home in Kitty Hawk, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, her top priorities were the look and feel of the house. Mr. Albrecht, who owns a generator company, wanted to make sure it could withstand hurricanes and storms.

“I didn’t want to live in a storm-resistant home and have it be ugly,” Ms. Close said. “I’m all about design and aesthetics.”

The compromise? The couple built a two-story, 4,800-square-foot Deltec house with a large kitchen that seats 10 people at the bar. It also has a game room with a shuffleboard, a poker table and a home theater.

Since they moved into the home in 2019, they have had a couple of big storms and a Category 1 hurricane that knocked out the power and required their generator to run for three days.

“We saw things flying in the air like canoes,” Ms. Close said. “But we really felt safe and protected.”

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