Some of the world’s most scenic locations for luxury homes — beachfronts, forests, mountains — are also prone to disaster: hurricanes and floods, wildfires and earthquakes. Architects and designers are increasingly tasked with creating gorgeous homes that are also able to stand up to nature’s whims.
“Working on any sort of building project in a coastal or high-risk area, everyone is hyper aware of wanting to protect their investment,” says James Ramsey a designer and director of RAAD Studio, a New York City design firm.
Last year’s hurricane season was costly and devastating, with three Category 4 hurricanes and several highly destructive wildfires in California. Overall, there were 16 separate billion-dollar disasters last year with total costs exceeding $300 billion, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Hurricane Harvey alone damaged or destroyed over 200,000 homes and businesses in Texas and Louisiana, while wildfires in California destroyed more than 15,000 homes and businesses in October 2017.
Preventing such catastrophic damage from happening again has presented some challenges for architects like Ramsey.
“Perhaps our aesthetic has to change a little bit, but reacting to the fact that the world is changing doesn’t have to be ugly,” says Ramsey. “What is really changing is that people are saying: Let’s prepare for it.”
The last home standing
Sean Jennings was vacationing in Florida in September 2015 when firefighter friends told him the Valley Fire was headed for his home in Lake County, California. “They said just sit tight because it would be a total loss.”
A mile-and-a-half wide tongue of fire came up the hillside and engulfed his house. Trees were scorched. His car’s tires melted into his driveway. But his home remained.
“Nobody within a half mile of me had a house,” Jennings said. “Everyone’s burned down. But not mine.”
He had only built his house a few years earlier. As a medical helicopter pilot, he needs to live in this rural area of Northern California for work and found a scenic piece of land on Seigler Mountain. But he struggled to get insurance. While Level 1 and 2 earthquakes come through regularly, he said, the real concern was that the area was at high risk for fires.
“I wanted something that was fireproof, earthquake proof, flood proof,” says Jennings. “Future proof, basically.”
Jennings’ solution was to find a building material made of polystyrene foam, steel and concrete. The interlocking 3-D panels built by RSG-3D are placed over a welded wire truss system, then covered with a reinforced concrete outer layer.
According to RSG-3D, the buildings can withstand at least two hours of exposure to fire, an earthquake registering up to 9.0 on the Richter scale, and sustained 300-mile-per hour winds.
Jennings determined the house cost 20% more to build than a wood frame house. What he didn’t anticipate was that it would save him hundreds of thousands of dollars and keep his house from being completely destroyed.
The Valley Fire broke his windows, resulting in some soot damage. A garage door was either left open or blew open, engulfing his workbench and tools and leaving screwdrivers looking like melted lollipops. “It was an inferno in there, but the room above the garage where I had my collectables and my wife’s Christmas ornament collection were totally untouched.”
He removed his furniture, spent two days pressure washing the house. “Then I moved my stuff back in and went back to living in it.”
Jennings incurred $72,000 worth of damage on his property worth about $300,000, while his neighbors, with houses of similar value, suffered total losses.
“Insurers should have been taking my premiums smiling, but they don’t have the data about this kind of building.”
Protection from water, through nature
In building a new beachfront home on the coast of New Jersey, Ramsey and his firm looked to nature to inform how to protect the property from coastal storms and flooding.
The simplest tool to keep coastal homes out of water is to raise them up, says Ramsey, “which we did, but we also tried to take a more poetic approach.”
Ramsey looked at a natural coastline near the building site. “The wind and tides have shaped it into something that isn’t just a raceway for water,” says Ramsey. “Something that takes water through it and the water and land interact together.”
He approached the house as a hydro-landscape intervention, shaping the land and terrain in a way that was responsive to the way Hurricane Sandy came through six years ago — where the water flowed and how it traveled.
With a concrete retaining wall under the house and huge walls of ballistic glass, the house is tough. But the scrubby dune landscape with beach grass and plantings push the house up above the high water mark, providing a way for water to come in and go out naturally.
“There was no need to over-think the design, there are beautiful views,” Ramsey said. “Let’s have an open airy space where you can enjoy those views. Let’s have a building that is in sync with the land and water in a way that allows it to survive.”