How Architectural Design Changes in Hurricane Prone Areas

How Architectural Design Changes in Hurricane Prone Areas

We are in the peak of hurricane season where clusters of clouds can become powerful category 5 hurricanes over the course of a few days. According to the National Hurricane Center, most tropical activity happens between mid-August and mid-October with the peak day being September 10th.

Atlantic Hurricane and Tropical Storm Activity

Millions of people live, work, and play in coastal areas that are prone to hurricanes and the wind, rain, and storm surge they bring. So how do we, as architects, design in these areas to minimize the impacts of such elements?

The Basics of Architecture

When you boil it down to the simplest form, architects are responsible for something known as "the building envelope." Structural engineers are responsible for the bones of the design. The things that hold buildings up. Architects are responsible for the skin of the design or everything that's meant to keep outside elements from getting inside.

Shane Larsen"So if you imagine the exterior walls, the doors, the windows, the roof. Saran wrap the whole building. That's kind of your envelope," explains Architect Shane Larsen.

Shane Larsen works at Schemmer's Des Moines, IA office. He has more than 24 years of experience in architecture and is licensed in several hurricane-prone states from the Gulf Coast to the Atlantic Coast.

Designing the Envelope to be Hurricane Resistant

Building codes vary from place to place and region to region. Some parts of the country have to focus more on seismic activity, and others focus more on snow, but in hurricane-prone areas, you have to design for certain wind thresholds and for storm surges.

"When we're designing in hurricane-prone areas, we have to have a clear understanding of the material we're using. We need to know how each material withstands the wind, but also how each piece of material is fastened to each other," Larsen said.

"Imagine a window," he said. "Certainly that glass needs to be strong enough to withstand high wind and usually we'll put a film on the interior side of the glass to prevent that window from shattering if it were to break. When you think about the whole window system, we have to get into the specifics of how it's fastened to the wall. So each component of the exterior wall needs to be able to withstand the high winds and the very difficult climate and the fastening between them is often the most vital."

Designing Against the Wind

Winds in a hurricane can range from 75 mph to in excess of 155 mph. As a result, designing for a certain threshold really depends on the budget.

Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale

"When you get to a category 5 hurricane, you're dealing with catastrophic conditions that are almost unaffordable to be able to invest in the structure or the systems it takes to withstand that," he said. "Plus, it's usually not very aesthetically pleasing either."

The better and much more affordable option is to have a storm shelter built into your design instead. "A storm shelter is a much more robust, usually centrally-located, part of the building that can withstand some of those very substantial winds. It's a much smaller area and much more economical to have that."

Designing Against the Storm Surge and Saltwater

Storm surge is defined as "an abnormal rise in water levels, generated by a storm, that is over and above the predicted astronomical tide levels," according to the National Hurricane Center. This wall of water brings not only the threat of flooding, but the salt can wreak havoc on materials as well.

"Something you'll notice along the coast is that most lower levels of buildings might be a parking garage or if they are an occupied area, they aren't residential, they might be more common spaces. You see a lot more materials that are easily cleaned up. You see a lot more aluminum and stainless steel as well," said Larsen.

In-Depth Discussion with Shane Larsen



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