We build homes mainly to protect ourselves from the surroundings and the environment. Aside from extreme environmental events, remember that climate is part of the environment and the overarching system surrounding our homes.
Understanding the climate system and the microclimate around your home should be one of the first steps in designing or retrofitting a home.
Designing your home for the climate zone it is in has two key merits:
Adapting to Climate Zones
About 50% of household energy in the U.S. is used for heating and cooling (space and water). This rate could be dramatically cut to almost zero in new construction and can be reduced significantly when retrofitting existing homes (depending on the scope and budget).
Data from recent years shows the acceleration of extreme climate events. We should expect significant changes in climate, some gradual (rising temperatures, droughts, sea-level rise) and some harsh and unexpected (extreme storms, precipitation, wildfires).
Designing a home for the current climate or based on historical data is a good start. That’s exactly what building codes help us achieve. However, assuming houses are built to last two to three generations, today’s designs should be able to meet future challenges while demonstrating consistent efficiency and durability throughout those years. To achieve true sustainability, we must adopt best practices that adhere to local climate zones, micro-climates, and predictable extreme events.
This blog focuses on the basic need to adhere to your local climate zone. You shouldn’t design the same home in Arizona, Indiana, Texas, or Oregon. In each region, the trajectory of the sun, the direction of wind and rain, the ranges and fluctuations of temperatures and humidity, the amount of precipitation, snow, and ice, and the risks from wildfires, floods, and earthquakes differ. Therefore, we want to stress two key considerations:
Our blog is not a substitute for proper design and construction. Awareness, research, and hiring the right professionals will help you make the right choices and save you money and aggravation from day one.
Which brings us to the prevailing question: what about the cost?
Cost is a leading factor in decision-making for any type of investment. There is a misconception that designing and building with sustainability, resilience, and efficiency in mind increases costs and tends to be above middle-of-the-road solutions. Check out our blog ROI (Return on Investment), which aims to demystify these conceptions.
When calculating your overall costs, you should consider the following in addition to the upfront expenses:
The difference between a truly resilient house and standard construction isn’t necessarily the cost. Many times it is awareness, asking the right questions, and implementing the knowledge by proper design and assembly, and by using adequate materials.
U.S Climate Zones
Building America, a program funded by the Department of Energy (DOE), provides ample information and data on design and building practices based on 8 different climate zones in the U.S. Its main aim is to help homeowners achieve the most energy-efficient homes. They also provide critical strategies for durability and adaptation to relevant climate zones, providing additional safety, comfort, and cost savings. To learn more about the difference between adaptation vs mitigation climate change, check out our blog about the two terms.
To determine the climate zone relevant to your property, check Building America Best Practices for a list of counties and climate zones. Or, you can use our tool by submitting your zip code and getting your relevant climate risks and your climate zone.
The climate zones defined by Building America are based on heating degree-days*, average temperatures**, and precipitation. The International Energy Conservation Code ( IECC) has a slightly different method for dividing and defining the U.S. climate zones. We rely on both resources. However, in this blog as in other sections of our website, we follow Building America’s climate zones.
Here is a summary of considerations in designing or building in the different climate zones in the U.S:
All content below is credited to Building America and the DOE, although we have refined and added some nuggets! Building America is a professional, reliable, and motivating source to follow for further information.
A mixed-humid climate is generally defined as a region that receives more than 20 in. (50 cm) of annual precipitation, has approximately 5,400 heating degree days* (65°F basis) or fewer, and where the average monthly outdoor temperature drops below 45°F (7°C) during the winter months.
States that are partially or entirely within the Hot-Humid climate zone:
Parts of the mixed-humid climate zones are subject to frequent and intense rainstorms, severe thunderstorms, and hail.
Some areas are at high risk for tornadoes and high winds. Large parts of the Midwest and the South have been subject to flooding. The mixed-humid climate is subject to hurricanes along the Eastern seaboard.
The region is at low risk of earthquakes except for localized areas around Arkansas and South Carolina (USGS 2010). Precipitation in the mixed-humid climate varies widely, from 20 inches in the drier parts of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, to more than 50 inches in Tennessee and North Carolina.
In this climate region you should mainly focus on:
Moisture and Extreme Precipitation
Probably the biggest challenge for maintaining a durable home is keeping its structure dry. Water in its various forms - liquid, solid (ice), vapor (moisture) - finds its way onto the exterior (rain, snow, ice), interior (floods, showering, cooking, breathing), and within the structure (leaks). Here are some key strategies to explore with your architect and contractors when designing or retrofitting a waterproof house:
Simply put, solar radiation heats up the roof, walls, windows, and doors, and that energy then heats up the interior of the home. In order to have an energy-efficient home (that uses less energy) and resilient (that reduces the dependency on the energy grid and cooling systems, even during extreme heat waves), you should:
Hurricanes, Tornadoes, and Strong Winds
Damage from hurricanes varies depending on the category of the storm and the location of the house. The main risks from hurricanes are falling trees, poles, and flying debris, power outages from days to months, major flooding and excess rain, and loss of water supply. In all storm categories, there is a risk of damage or full removal of the roof, sidings, and other exterior elements, structural damage (walls, roof) to complete displacement or destruction of the house.
The following are strategies to reduce potential damage In hurricane areas to achieve hurricane tornado proof homes:
Read further on strategies and products to enhance the protection of your home from hurricanes in our blog.
Floods are the most common natural disaster in the U.S. We tend to think that floods happen mainly around coastlines and during hurricanes, but America is experiencing more frequent and devastating floods along creeks and rivers (“riverine floods”), lakes and ponds, and areas with inadequate drainage systems. In some cases, extreme precipitation events (“atmospheric rivers”), in-land tornados, and melting snow/ice can also cause floods in unexpected locations.
In flood risk zones consider:
Read further on strategies and products to enhance the protection of your home from floods, in our blog.
Hail is a form of precipitation consisting of solid ice that forms inside thunderstorm updrafts, sometimes building rapidly and without advanced warnings. Hail can damage homes and landscaping and can be deadly to people, livestock, and pets.
In Hail risk zones consider the following:
Read further on strategies and products to enhance the protection of your home from hail, in our blog.
Lightning is a giant spark of electricity in the atmosphere between clouds, the air, or the ground. Lightning is one of the oldest observed natural phenomena on earth. It can be seen in heavy snowstorms, large hurricanes, and obviously, thunderstorms (with or without rain).
Lightning protection systems do not prevent lightning from striking the structure, but rather intercept the lightning strike and provide a conductive path for the harmful electrical discharge to disperse safely into the ground.
The installation of a complete lightning protection system includes several components. These components must be properly connected to each other in order to minimize the chances of any sparks or side flashes. In addition to the conductive and grounding elements, you need to further protect the house from electrical surges which might flow through the house piping and wiring networks putting these elements at risk as well as the appliances connected to them.
Components of a lightning protection system:
Read further on lightning and homes in our blog.
Wildfires in Risk Zones
Wildfires pose a risk to the lives of people who live near those ecosystems and their homes. Moisture is one of the main factors that determine wildfire frequency and since the changing climate in recent years brings dryer winters, the consequences of wildfires are becoming more devastating, and the fire season becomes longer. In fire risk zones consider:
Earthquakes in risk zones
The design and building of new construction should be with sufficient strength and stiffness to properly perform during an earthquake. According to FEMA, “actual earthquakes can generate forces considerably higher than those used for code-prescribed design.”
As a minimum, build your home according to local and state codes. But based on the specific risk zone you are in, consider the above-code techniques to further enhance a structure to obtain minimal damage and the best protection for the occupants and belongings. These would be:
For retrofitting your home, there are numerous measures you can take to make your house more susceptible to earthquake forces. Here are some options to explore:
Read further about Earthquakes’ risks to homes and strategies to reduce potential damage in our blog.
Pests do not only pose a risk to your property but are also a threat to your family’s health. As with other hazards, prevention and being on the offense is a better strategy than being on the defense after pests have gained access or control over parts of your property.
The following methods are layers of protection that perform well together to reduce the threats from pests.
Climate is part of the environment and the overarching system that surrounds our homes. The main reason we build houses is to protect ourselves from weather and natural phenomena.
Homes should be designed to adhere to the local climate zone characteristics and the micro-climate around the home, in order to achieve:
Achieving these objectives requires proper design, construction, and choice of materials. Building codes are a good starting point however, they set the minimum requirements and don’t always cover all the best practices. Assuming houses are built to last 50 - 100 years, the goal should be to ensure their design can meet future challenges and demonstrate the same efficiency and durability over such time.
To achieve true future sustainability - research and understand your climate zone and study how to mitigate the risks it poses. Tap into information from local governments, communities, and neighbors. Lastly, hire certified professionals that will help you achieve these goals in the most cost-effective way.
Remember, working with the environment and adhering to the local climate zone is the necessary first step. The next step is being ready for future extreme events which now occur more frequently. These require additional measures and planning.
KEEP COOL. BUILD RESILIENCE. EAMPACT.
* Heating and Cooling Degree Days
NOAA defines: “Degree days are based on the assumption that when the outside temperature is 65°F, we don't need heating or cooling to be comfortable. Degree days are the difference between the daily temperature mean, (high temperature plus low temperature divided by two) and 65°F. If the mean temperature is above 65°F, we subtract 65 from the mean and the result is Cooling Degree Days. If the mean temperature is below 65°F, we subtract the mean from 65 and the result is Heating Degree Days.”
A degree day is a solid gauge to calculate if your home improvements have merit. After you take measures to improve your energy efficiency with the proper home insulation and airtightness, energy-efficient HVAC systems (or a “passive house” ventilation system), you will be able to observe how the new energy bills fare against the past. While extreme events of high or low temperatures at any given year might skew the results, you should still be better off after installing proper insulation and taking advantage of energy-efficient HVAC systems or “passive house” strategies.
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