Natural disasters of some form or other affect nearly every populated region on earth. While the exact nature of the threat can vary from harsh winds to tremors in the ground, construction designs and technology have evolved to mitigate the potential fallout from natural disasters and increase structural survivability. Building codes that prescribe these innovations are a vital part of ensuring the public remains safe, even during a natural disaster.
Learn more about the structural safety innovations designed for several common natural disasters.
Earthquakes can cause buildings to shake, which may collapse the foundation or induce wall cracks, and can compromise the structural integrity and safety of buildings even when they remain standing afterward. When buildings shake uncontrollably, furniture and other heavy items may also collapse, causing potentially serious harm to inhabitants.
One structural solution is to install seismic shock absorbers within the building’s foundation to help lessen the impact of the shaking ground on the building’s walls. Engineers are also experimenting with installing pendulums in tall buildings to help the structure shift its weight as needed when the earth moves.
In Japan, about 9,000 structures have been built with a rubber foundation, called a base isolator, to avoid a collapse in the event of an earthquake. When earthquakes strike, buildings with these rubber foundations experience less damage and don’t collapse like structures without this upgrade. In the U.S., only a few buildings are equipped with this technology.
Severe storms and other natural disasters can lead to destructive flooding, an issue for coastal homes. Engineers have already implemented upgraded designs for coastal homes around the world to prevent water damage, including building homes on stilt or pier foundations. These raised foundations do help keep homes safe from rising waters.
If builders in flood-prone areas opt for ground-level construction, they may also only design these homes with the garage or storage unit on the first level. The ground level is built using breakaway walls, which break from the structure at the first signs of high water pressure.
This allows water to flow through the structure freely instead of rising and threatening the next story of the home. This also ensures the water pressure doesn’t build up and take away the entire structure.
In the Netherlands, scientists are working on “waterworld homes,” which are floating apartments that can stay on top of high waters. The scientists designed floating hotels and conference centers in the Maldives, which have proven to remain intact, even in rising waters.
Tornadoes generally develop without warning and can tear through neighborhoods, causing structural damage and harming the structural integrity of homes and commercial buildings. Futuristic building materials may be the answer to making buildings and homes more structurally sound during these wind events.
Wood, concrete, and steel are traditional building materials because they’re sturdy. However, with no flexibility, these materials can snap and break when exposed to the strong winds of a tornado.
Construction engineers are experimenting with other building materials, including carbon fiber, metal mesh, and Kevlar. Not only do these materials provide some give when the wind gets fierce, but they may also protect occupants from flying shrapnel and debris.
While it’s been proven that these flexible materials can withstand tornado winds better than traditional mediums, the cost can be a barrier for many commercial builders and homeowners. However, if these materials help save money on roof repairs or replacements, siding repair, and other tornado damages, they may be worth the investment.
Hurricanes are common in coastal areas and generally bring excessive rain and strong winds. Modern building codes require that nails are used where the roof meets the wall to lower the number of roof claims insurance companies receive after a hurricane strikes.
While this updated code does help ensure roofs stay put during a storm, metal connectors and bracing may be more effective, especially in a strong hurricane. Most newly constructed homes in coastal areas, such as Florida, are equipped with these metal connectors. There are also retrofitting opportunities, including roof clips, that can be added to older homes to improve the roof connection and its ability to withstand the wind.
Landslides generally occur in mountainous areas when rain has caused the ground to become soft and move. In the U.S., landslides cause over $1 billion in damages and 25 to 50 deaths each year. Landslides can cause extensive damage, including:
- Cracks in the foundation and walls.
- Wall tilting.
- Distortions in pillars and other load-bearing structures.
- Movement from the foundation.
- Roof damage in commercial buildings and homes.
Residents rely on strict building codes to ensure their homes are safe from landslides. For example, in Snohomish County, Washington, there are rules on where homes can be built to avoid landslides.
In 2015, the county expanded its “landslide hazardous area” in an attempt to prevent new construction from being damaged by this natural disaster. If a builder opts to begin a project in this landslide hazardous area, they’re required to follow a set of guidelines that restricts where and how they can build.
In the Pacific Northwest, residents and builders alike have found that the key to preventing catastrophic damage in a landslide is to prevent consistent erosion from water flow around the property. Avoiding installing permanent irrigation systems on the slope of a property may also minimize damage.
Wildfires generally occur in wooded and dry areas and are spread by wind. California and other wooded states are prone to wildfires in dry seasons. While no building can ever be fire-proof, builders in these wildfire-prone areas are experimenting with sturdier materials to minimize damage.
Builders are considering building new homes with clay tile roofs and frames made from concrete with reinforced steel. Staying away from wood and other flammable materials may provide families more time to evacuate their homes before the fire causes substantial damage.
Homeowners waste a lot of energy heating and cooling their homes. With extremely hot and cold temperatures becoming more prevalent, construction engineers are experimenting with technologies to make heating and cooling homes and commercial buildings more efficient, including the following:
- R25 polyisocyanurate composite insulation material: Unlike standard insulation, these insulation panels are airtight, so they provide a tighter seal and keep hot or cold air inside the home longer.
- R10 insulated vinyl siding: An upgrade to this type of vinyl siding saves you money on your heating or cooling bill. Scientists are also looking into adding insulation to the siding to ensure the home is even more protected from extreme temperatures.
- Polymeric Vacuum Insulation Spheres (PVIS): This strong material reduces damage from nail holes and other construction projects, which ensures the home is sealed tight.
- Vacuum Glass for R-10 Windows: Vacuum glass windows reduce the amount of heat that is lost from regular windows while also making the home more airtight.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) funds these experimental projects in the hopes that this technology will soon be available to U.S. home builders and owners dealing with extreme climates.
With the current numbers of natural disasters and climate events, builders, construction engineers, and scientists have dedicated their efforts to finding solutions for homes and commercial buildings. Some of these designs have been implemented globally or domestically while others are still in the experimentation phase.