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Tips For Building Hurricane-Proof Houses

Clemmons NC (SPX) Nov 28, 2005
As less fortunate residents of the devastated Gulf Coast look to rebuild, many are searching for new houses that will be able to weather the next storm.

They’re studying house styles and construction techniques that might be better suited to hurricane-prone areas than the houses that were swept away in the double whammy of Katrina and Rita. And some are calling companies like Topsider Homes.

What kind of structure could stand up to the wrath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita?

Ask Pam Coyle and Shaun Washburn. The eye of the Hurricane Katrina passed right over their 20-year-old weekend retreat in Perkinston, Mississippi; yet the house suffered no structural damage.

“I was amazed,” said Washburn, who estimated he had climbed over more than 30 fallen trees on the heavily wooded property to get to the house. “The house is glass all around, and had more than 100 trees around it. Not one pane of glass broke. From inside the house, you wouldn’t even know there had been a hurricane.”

Their house, like four owned by Hubert Spradling of Orange, TX, has a number of advantages over conventionally built houses when it comes to standing up to roaring winds and raging floods. One advantage is post-and-beam construction, believed to be the oldest wood construction method.

Post-and- beam construction is the secret to the longevity of the much-admired barns of New England. It’s what has enabled those old buildings to withstand earthquakes and heavy loads of snow on the roof as well as hurricanes.

Going barn-style one better, these modern post-and-beam houses are based on the octagon. The eight-sided design makes it difficult to knock the house down. Rather, the winds blow down and around the house and over the low-slung roof.

Topsider homes (pictured), which are built virtually all around the world, start out in a factory in Clemmons, North Carolina. The components are shipped to the end location and assembled by local builders. And along with all their other out-of-the-mainstream features, every house is designed with local weather conditions, environmental factors and local building code requirements in mind.

But when Hurricane Rita devastated much of the town of Orange on September 26, that house came through unscathed, as did two of his other Topsider homes. The fourth house suffered some roof damage and a couple of windows were blown out by the 140 mph winds.

Spradling’s daughter lives in one of the houses and another is rented out. These residents moved back into their homes when the mandatory evacuation ended. In contrast, many of the nearby neighbors’ houses lay collapsed under fallen trees, and the metal building that houses Spradling’s retail boat business, 100 feet away from one of the Topsider houses, was torn apart.

Like Barns, Only Better

Builders today have a better variety of materials to work with than the farmers of 200 years ago. Topsider homes for example, are built with southern yellow pine lumber,

which is the strongest of the softwoods and has a desirable amount of “give” that hardwoods lack. The laminated and solid timbers are bolted together with massive steel collars and couplings. In many cases the houses sit on thick concrete steel-reinforced pedestals, which are effective shock absorbers. The floor, wall and roof panels are affixed to create a weather-tight shell, and windows are typically made with safety glass or high-impact, missile-resistant glass.

Topsider homes, which are built virtually all around the world, start out in a factory in Clemmons, North Carolina. The components are shipped to the end location and assembled by local builders. And along with all their other out-of-the-mainstream features, every house is designed with local weather conditions, environmental factors and local building code requirements in mind.

“They do everything they were designed to do — they’re flood-proof, hurricane-proof and earthquake-proof. And they are easily maintained and very efficient,” said Spradling. “We’ve been very happy with them.”

The first Topsider homes were built on the sides of mountains and on ocean beaches, in vacation and resort areas. From the beginning, salt air, steep terrain, snowloading — any local conditions that might present a threat — were addressed in the design and engineering. When Spradling bought his four houses, just one model was available, and he has found that model adaptable for commercial as well as residential uses. Now the company’s custom houses, in a large variety of shapes, sizes and styles, are built from Scotland to Japan, from the islands of the Caribbean to the permafrost of the Arctic Circle.



Quake-resistant buildings can save lives in Haiti

26 Feb 2010 16:34:00 GMT

Written by: Anastasia Moloney

Quake-resistant buildings can save lives in Haiti
26 Feb 2010 16:34:00 GMT
Written by: Anastasia Moloney

One of many collapsed buildings in Port-au-Prince. Anastasia  Moloney
One of many collapsed buildings in Port-au-Prince. Anastasia Moloney

BOGOTA (AlertNet) – Countless lives could be saved in the future if 10 percent of relief aid to Haiti is spent on building earthquake- and hurricane-resistant schools, hospitals and houses for the one million left homeless by last month’s earthquake, experts say.

“We hope that 10 percent of aid will focus on reducing Haiti’s vulnerability to disasters,” Margareta Wahlstrom, the U.N. Secretary-General special representative for disaster risk reduction, told AlertNet. “This requires a political statement of commitment from the aid agencies and Haitian government.”

It is a recommendation shared by other agencies.

“If we had 25 years until the next big earthquake in Haiti, which is reasonable to assume looking at the history, quake-resistant buildings could save around 100,000 lives,” said Brian Tucker, a leading expert on earthquake risk reduction and head of GeoHazards International, a U.S.-based non-profit organisation that works to reduce the impact of earthquakes. He added that 10 percent of donor funds should be spent on preparing for and mitigating the impact of earthquakes.

Many experts say the high death toll of the Jan. 12 earthquake, which claimed the lives of nearly 217,500 people according to the latest government figures, was largely preventable because earthquakes kill and injure people only if they cause buildings to collapse. “The lethality of an earthquake comes from poor construction, not from the shaking of an earthquake,” Tucker said.

Before the quake Haiti’s sprawling capital Port-au-Prince, which bore the brunt of the earthquake, was littered with shoddy constructions. Many schools and homes had brittle walls and unreinforced masonry, not least due to poor building standards and almost non-existent building regulations. As a result, the 7.0-magnitude quake shattered around 100,000 of the capital’s buildings, including an estimated 80 percent of schools, the main prison, the presidential palace and the U.N. compound. But the relief community sees in the destruction a key opportunity to build back better and in accordance with quake-resistant building codes. The rebuilding of Port-au-Prince and the surrounding areas devastated by the catastrophe is estimated to take at least 10 years and cost some $14 billion, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.


While no structure is 100 percent quake-proof, engineers say, buildings can be made more rigid to help them withstand an earthquake’s rocking forces. At the very least, buildings can be built to keep standing for longer, giving occupants potentially life-saving seconds to flee to safety.

Adding earthquake-resistant features, such as reinforced concrete, which involves embedding steel rods or bars into concrete, strong columns, and reinforcing walls with diagonal steel beams, along with bolting buildings to their foundations, can all make buildings more robust.

“Building a home, a box, where all the elements of the box are connected and tied together with bolts and steel mesh in corners is one guiding principle in making buildings safer,” said Tucker. Such features are relatively cheap, experts say, and add less than 10 percent on average to building costs. “The difference in cost between a building that is safe and one that is not safe is not that big,” said United Nations’ Wahlstrom.

“It can be as little as 3 to 4 percent higher when building a safe school, and about a 5 to 10 per cent increase when building a hospital.”

Deciding where to rebuild in Haiti is perhaps just as important as how buildings are built, the United Nations says. Building on steep slopes and on soft soil foundations increases the chance of buildings sinking or tipping over during an earthquake.

However, in a country where corruption is rife, particularly in the building sector, the possible embezzlement of billions of dollars of aid earmarked for Haiti’s reconstruction is a major concern, the United Nations says. It says aid must be coordinated and monitored closely to ensure corruption does not undermine reconstruction efforts.

“Corruption is not just about money going astray but includes weakening building materials by mixing sand with cement,” said Wahlstrom. “There are risks all through the system, especially when lots of contractors are employed.” The Haiti quake serves as a stark warning to other major cities in the region built near fault lines, with many buildings that do not comply with quake-resistant design codes, such as in Quito, Lima, Caracas, Bogota.

“The most disturbing thing about Haiti is that it’s an example of what we’ll see in the future,” said Tucker. “Increasing numbers of people living in cities in developing worlds and the decreasing quality of buildings means many hundreds of thousands of lives will be lost in future earthquakes.”



Shake-table crash testing of a regular building model (left) and a base-isolated building model (right) [2] at UCSD

Earthquake engineering

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Earthquake engineering is the study of the behavior of buildings and structures subject to seismic loading. It is a subset of both structural and civil engineering.

The main objectives of earthquake engineering are:

  • Understand the interaction between buildings or civil infrastructure and the ground.
  • Foresee the potential consequences of strong earthquakes on urban areas and civil infrastructure.
  • Design, construct and maintain structures to perform at earthquake exposure up to the expectations and in compliance with building codes[1].

A properly engineered structure does not necessarily have to be extremely strong or expensive.

(etc. – lots of good information here – and although most people probably don’t realize it, many architects, building contractors and others involved in building trades do not understand nor hold certifications in engineering, structural engineering or architectural engineering and many do not have a full appreciation of the level of responsibility they hold for the lives and well-being of the people who will live, work and survive as a result of their work. That is an unnecessary tragedy waiting to happen everywhere they touch. It is not a thing to be taken lightly. The earthquake and extreme event resistant building methods and materials are available but if business people, investors, inspectors, government leaders, and building contractors hold those building codes and methods in contempt then they will not support using them and sooner or later the costs of not having done it will hit them full force as lives are lost or forever changed in horrific ways as happened in Haiti, my note).


GeoHazards International

The 10% Solution: How to Respond to the Haitian Earthquake
Brian E. Tucker

A slightly different version of this article appeared in:

Download Spanish translation of article

The death and injury of thousands of innocent people as a result of the M 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12th and the economic hardship of tens of thousands of Haitians that will surely follow in the near future is absolutely tragic, in the sense that these people are not responsible for their suffering. But this suffering is not due to an “act of God” that no one could foresee. While earthquakes are not as frequent as hurricanes in the Caribbean, they are common. Also, it is well known that poor design and construction practice results in buildings that collapse during earthquakes – killing and injuring the inhabitants and causing social disruption, sometimes for generations. Japan and the State of California have improved their building codes and construction practices and as a result, the lethality of earthquakes in both places has been reduced over the last century by an order of magnitude. We know how to mitigate the devastating effects of earthquakes.

For someone like myself, who has devoted most of his professional life to reducing loss of life and suffering due to natural disasters, to see the images coming out of Haiti is like seeing the scene of an accident caused by a drunk driver whom you had tried again and again to stop from drinking and driving. The suffering of innocents is terrible to witness. But almost as terrible is the fear that government authorities will not learn and take corrective actions to keep this from happening in the future, elsewhere.

After taking care of the victims in Haiti, we should approach the people who allowed hospitals and schools to be constructed in ways that would collapse during an earthquake. Wouldn’t it have been a wonderful symbol if the United Nations building in Haiti had been properly built or retrofitted to resist earthquakes, and we could all observe it standing now? That could have taught many people the life lesson that we can plan for and mitigate against natural hazards.

It is not enough to “build back better,” and it is not enough to focus only on Port au Prince. After the victims have been treated, we should quickly focus attention and resources on reducing the consequences of the earthquakes that we know will hit Haiti in the future. Any foreign investments in infrastructure development should account for the risk of natural disasters. Any construction funded by foreign sources should involve local masons, who should be trained to build structures that can resist the effects of natural disasters. A school earthquake safety program, similar to California’s, should be launched in Haiti. Laws should be passed that establish earthquake safety standards for hospital construction. A school-based public awareness campaign should educate the young about earthquakes and hurricanes, and what can be done to mitigate their effects.

“How will impoverished Haiti pay for these programs?”

I propose that agencies soliciting funds for the response to and recovery from the Haitian earthquake commit 10% of the amount that they collect to mitigating future earthquakes: to preparedness and prevention activities like mason training, public awareness programs, improved engineering curricula in local universities, geologic hazards mapping, and developing effective earthquake safety public policies. Why 10%? Because the rule of thumb is that each dollar invested in preventing natural disasters saves ten dollars in future damage.

If we fail to learn from this earthquake to do all that we can to prevent such losses in the future, that will be a second tragedy.




Resources from the GeoHazards Website –

Resources on Natural Disasters


National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET)
Sustainable Environment & Ecological Development (SEEDS)

Earthquakes and Hazards Resources

American Geophysical Union (AGU)
Southern California Earthquake Center
Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI)
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
IDSR – Links to Early Warning Organizations and Issues
Incorporated Research Institute for Seismology (IRIS) Earthquake Seismic Monitor
Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (MCEER)
National Information Center of Earthquake Engineering at IIT Kanpur, INDIA
National Information Service for Earthquake Engineering
Natural Hazards Center, Boulder CO
The Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center
USGS Earthquake Hazards Program
World Seismic Safety Initiative (WWSI)
The Seismological Society of America

(from -)



The Earthquake Engineering Online Archive
An e-library of significant, publically-funded, full-text literature, images, data, and software in structural and geotechnical earthquake engineering.

William Godden Structural Engineering Slide Library

(found here -)


Earthquake Engineering Research Center, (EERC), University of California, Berkeley

National Information Service for Earthquake Engineering