We are a nation of homeowners—more than two-thirds of our population lives in owner-occupied housing, representing more than 76 million housing units. The median U.S. home is 32 years old, and valued at just under $200,000, according to the National Association of Realtors. Through retrofitting, older homes can become both more energy efficient and disaster resistant. This is a winning situation for everyone involved. In fact, President Obama has called retrofitting houses to make them better “sexy.”
“Much of the positive attention that has been given to home retrofitting has focused on energy efficiency,” says Julie Rochman, president & CEO of the Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS)
in Tampa, Fla. “But there is another, equally important aspect of home weatherization—making homes stronger so that they are better able to withstand natural perils such as hurricanes, tornadoes, freezing weather, and hail.”
Federal legislation (S. 2818) recently introduced by Sen. George Lemieux (R-Fla.) would amend existing tax credits for energy-related home retrofitting to allow for pre-disaster hazard mitigation home improvements. Specifically, the bill would increase the amount of allowable expenditures available to low income homeowners, from $6,500 to $8,500, for home retrofit projects, which would result in both energy efficiency and disaster resistance improvements. This is an excellent example of going green and building strong.
Weatherization that lowers energy consumption and increases disaster protection compounds potential savings for homeowners. Separate from any savings on energy costs, a study by the Multi-hazard Mitigation Council (MMC) for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) found that every $1 spent on loss prevention saves society (individuals, states and communities) an average of $4 in future reduced losses.
“Certain retrofit improvements—such as replacing primary windows and doors with those that are both energy efficient and wind resistant — are dual purpose, and thus most cost-effective,” Rochman said. “When an existing roof requires replacement, it can be done with a roof that offers both disaster resistance and energy efficiency.”
Similarly, one way to reduce energy consumption is to seal air gaps in walls by applying caulk along joints between sheathing and wall framing elements. The simple switch to a structural wood adhesive could provide a barrier to air movement and dramatically increase the structural strength of the wall.
When walls are opened up to allow these kinds of retrofits, it also provides an opportunity to identify hazard related deficiencies and to allow structural retrofits that tie roofs to walls and walls to floors or foundations at substantially lower costs.
Protecting homes from being destroyed by disasters also helps the environment by preventing the resulting debris from being added to local landfills. For example, following the disastrous 2008 floods in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a year’s worth of trash was collected and removed from the city in just one week. That is more than 80,000 tons of debris. In addition, all materials and gasoline, etc., used as part of the extensive rebuilding process end up adding greatly to the community’s carbon footprint and drain other natural resources.
“Like energy-efficiency improvements, retrofitting to improve structural durability helps to boost the economy by putting contractors and laborers to work, as well as through the purchase of building supplies,” Rochman states. “These economic benefits come at the local level, primarily because this type of home hardening is dependent upon familiarity with local weather conditions and appropriate building codes.”
There are instances where the “greening” of a building can actually undermine disaster resistance. For example, planting trees on a roof may reduce carbon emissions, but also can create projectiles in high-wind areas and become a fuel source for wildfire, thus increasing home or business vulnerability. The most comprehensive approach to weatherization will take into account all aspects of weather, not just temperature, as part of the retrofitting process.
“When retrofitting for disaster resistance, it is important to adopt a ‘systems’ approach that protects the entire building envelope: the roof, walls, and all windows and doors,” Rochman says. “This is necessary to assure the home’s structural integrity in the face of hurricane force winds and other perils.”
By contrast, an a la carte approach (for example, replacing or protecting a large picture window but not other windows and doors in a hurricane-prone region) may not reduce the vulnerability very much since one of the other windows or doors may fail and allow wind and water to enter the building.
For disaster protection, there is no government-approved rating system, such as the Energy Star label. However, the Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS), has conducted extensive research and identified effective retrofitting measures for the major weather events. In addition, IBHS’ Fortified for Existing Homes program is a means through which homeowners can achieve an even higher degree of disaster resistance through retrofitting.
“As IBHS and others identify ways to protect property in the face of natural disasters, we look forward to working with our colleagues in the green community,” Rochman says. “Helping property owners build and retrofit structures that are both green and durable will make our communities stronger, safer, and better in many ways."
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