building a houseLet’s say you’ve answered the question of whether to build or buy, and you’ve settled on building your next house. It’s a huge undertaking. There are decisions to be made about floor plans, materials, cost and finishes, just to name a few. But one thing folks might not consider is how to build to avoid disaster caused by the elements.

It’s understood that where you choose to build has a lot more to do with where you’re working than the weather of a specific region of the country. But in today’s post, I’ll offer up a few key questions to ask so you can avoid disaster down the road.

Know Which Way the Wind Blows

In 2014 alone, tornadoes accounted for $635.69 million in damage across the United States, while hurricanes accounted for $3.69 million in damage. Those numbers are pretty staggering, but if your family happens to live in Florida or Oklahoma, and you’re building a new home in the area, there are things you can do to avoid adding your home to those frightening statistics.

Your builder’s answers should fall under three major categories: materials, building techniques and shelter.

What materials are you using to prevent wind and debris damage? The material your builder uses when building your home does as much to protect you and your home from hurricanes and tornados. Consider the front door for a second. My front door is aluminum with a lightweight core. It’s a great insulator against the warm and cold temperatures throughout the year, but if a tornado sends a 2×4 flying through the air at 100 mph, my front door won’t stand a chance. Doors, shingles, concrete and very nearly any material that’s used in building a home can fortify it against high winds.

What techniques are you using to keep my house from blowing away? Building techniques are the tricks of the trade that help your builder make your home more secure against high winds. In hurricane-prone areas of the country, strapping that secures the roof to the exterior walls of the home can be added to the house framing. That’s just one example of a technique that keeps your home together and secure should the wind pick up. Other examples are gable-end fortification and rebar-enforced concrete walls. Tricks of the trade that improve the ability of your home to withstand wind can be costly. But ultimately, those extras can make the difference between sleeping under a tarp or under a roof.

What kind of shelter would you recommend for this area? When it comes to a place to bunker down in a storm, you’ve got a couple options, namely, a basement or installed shelter. First, basements aren’t available everywhere. Soil conditions in some areas of Oklahoma and Florida are too sandy for a structurally sound basement to be dug. My parents, for example, lived outside of Huntsville, AL, and they were unable to build a home with a basement. As a result, they went with a shelter built into their garage.

Second, shelters (or bunkers, as they’re also known as) can either be accessed from within or outside of the home. My parents’ shelter was a metal box that was bolted to the concrete floor of the garage. Thankfully, they only had to use it a couple times while they lived there, but it was graded for anything that might come their way.

In-ground shelters are usually detached from the house and can vary widely in size. Since in-ground shelters are accessible only from a small companionway, they limit you and your family’s exposure to the worst weather.

Water, Water, Everywhere

For most people, a flood means the unstoppable flow of unwanted water into your basement. You don’t even have to live in a flood plain for flooding to happen. Flooding can happen in nearly any climate at any time of year.

Take the Detroit metro area, for example. In August of 2014, rain deluged the hometown of Quicken Loans in 4.57 inches of rain. Surrounding suburbs were treated to more than six inches, all in one evening.

All that water overburdened the drainage system and as a result, homeowners across southeast Michigan came home from work (those who could navigate the roadways) to a basement full of water.

If you’re building, how do you prevent your home from falling victim to an unexpected wealth of the wet stuff? For an answer, let’s start at the outside of the house and look in.

How high is my house? Before your house is built, the lay of the land has a lot to do with how water is handled when construction is done. Take a look at your lot and consider the grade (the angle and slope of the land, and how water would move across/underneath it). Since water runs downhill, and if your house is built at the lowest point of a lot, guess what. You’re going to run into trouble. Before you build, you can have the lot graded to keep you and yours high and dry. If you’re building a home with a basement, make sure you speak with your contractor to build your home up above the surrounding lot to keep water at bay.

How waterproof are the walls? After you have the ground graded just right and the foundation is poured, ask your builder what kind of water mitigation system they’re using. Most newly constructed homes have to follow a set of guidelines when it comes to water mitigation, but to be safe, it’s important to know what goes into building your home for yourself. The walls of your home should have a vapor/waterproof insulation barrier on the outside face, with a footing pipe around the perimeter. A backfill area around the house fills in above the footing pipe, and any gutters you have should direct water well past the backfill area. The exterior footing pipe and footing pipes underneath your basement floor direct any water around the home into the sump, which is a reservoir that holds that collected water. All that collected water gets pumped out of the sump and away from the house.

How much water can my sump pump move and what kind of backup pump will you be using? Finally, and possibly the most important part of basement construction, is the sump pump itself. In times of heavy rain, your home is essentially an island in a sea of groundwater. A sump pump can help keep your basement dry, but having your contractor install a backup makes sure that if your primary pump fails, the water stays outside. There are a few options when it comes to backup pumps, but the best ones are the sump pumps that are as least dependent on electricity as possible.

Water powered sump pumps use city water to move water from the sump up, out and away from the house. They don’t rely on anything other than water from your own plumbing to work, but they’re not ideal for a primary solution. All that city water used to get the runoff water out of your sump can add up. And because you’re using one gallon for every two you move, the cost of using it can get really expensive.

Before you even pick a place to build, however, make sure you’re not building in a flood plain. If it’s absolutely unavoidable, consider elevating your home above the water line and research the flood history of the site.

Fire Away

Fires, whether they’re the result of a forest fire, lightning strike or an electrical problem, can be absolutely devastating. To avoid catastrophe, you and your builder should talk about fire prevention in the planning stages of your home, but it’s not always clear what you should ask.

Here are a few important questions that make sure your builder is keeping fire safety in mind.

How far is my house from the nearest tree or tree line? If there’s nothing surrounding your house that is flammable, and a fire breaks out adjacent to your

home, your house is less likely to catch fire. When talking lot placement with your builder, ensure there’s a buffer between any surrounding wooded areas and your home.

Are you doing anything to clear the underbrush from the wooded areas surrounding my home? Fires start small, so brush is the first to catch.

Clear out the brush from any wooded areas so that if a fire does happen, cleared underbrush can help slow or halt its advance.

What materials are you using to help prevent my house from catching? Airborne embers can land on any part of your home and potentially start a fire. At the same time, the right materials can help slow the advance of fires in your home. Fire-resistant doors, windows, siding and even ignition-resistant roofing can all keep your home from catching when fire comes knocking.

Can I build here? Believe it or not, there are some places in the country where it’s illegal to build a home due to fire regulations. Part of the permitting process that every builder has to complete will tell you whether or not the site you selected allows for a home to be built.

And this one isn’t exactly for your builder, but it’s a good one to ask: What effect will building at this location have on my insurance? One of the first questions your home owner’s insurance will ask when you move to a new house is, “Are you less than 500 feet from a fire hydrant?” Sounds like a strange question, but a few key things determine part of your insurance premium.

First, insurance companies look for your home’s location. Where will your home be? If it’s in the wilderness, how fast can help get to you? Next, insurance companies look for fire safeguards. That fire hydrant question is one example, but so is the distance of your home to a fire station. And finally, how old is your home? If you’re building, it’s not much of a concern, but the building materials of today are much more resistant to catching fire than those of even 10 or 20 years ago.

Build Smart. Be Happy.

Building new is daunting, but by asking the right questions and making sure your safety bases are covered, Mother Nature will be a respectful houseguest, rain or shine.

Most builders are aware of the tricks, materials and tactics for building in the specific area you’ll be moving to, but when it comes to your family’s safety, it never hurts to ask the questions outlined for you above.

So what questions did you ask your builder when it came to keeping the elements at bay? Is there anything you’d ask differently? Let us know in the comments below.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Just build a tornado proof house to begin with. They cost about the same to build (but due to their energy efficiency pay for themselves in 18 years) and are being built all over the South. MANY schools are now built using the technology because FEMA will pay for a large chunk as they are rated as near absolute protection from disasters.

    Builders learn to build these here: http://www.monolithic.org (Based in Texas)

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