Homeowners in the U.S can build and improve their homes to be more resilient to increasing climate extremes. We aim to educate homeowners about relevant climate risks and solutions to reduce potential damage to homes and save lives.
In this series of blogs, we share stories of climate-resilient homes. Not only homes that were designed to be resilient, but homes that proved their resilience.
Architect Leigh Overland lives with his wife in the Ash Creek House he designed.
Overland and his wife aimed for low maintenance and a carefree house to be able to eventually retire in. They didn’t want to worry about potential climate extremes such as storms and wildfires or high insurance rates. They desired a safe and comfortable house.
Since they moved in, six months ago, they experienced winds of up to 50 mph and fluctuating outdoor temperatures which did not affect the indoor comfortable ambiance. They continue to be impressed by the indoor warmth, and the mid-winter silence despite the strong winds, even when standing close to the windows. They enjoy a soothing and safe feeling. Overland even calls it “magical”.
Overland’s journey with building for climate resilience began nine years ago when a customer wished to build a Scottish castle in Connecticut in reminiscence of their wedding in Scotland.
While searching for appropriate material, Overland got acquainted with Insulated Concrete Form (ICF). ICFs combine 6 building steps into one building solution: form system, air barrier, wall structure, vapor barrier, insulation, and interior/exterior finish anchorage which replace wood studs. Realizing the many benefits of this design and material combination, Overland quickly became an ICF ambassador and decided to use it in all his designs.
So far, Overland designed a dozen projects with ICFs, and half a dozen projects are in various stages of design or construction today. Most of his projects are in the Northeast: Connecticut, New York, Washington, Georgia, and New Jersey.
Overland believes ICF is the future of building and that its demand will grow significantly.
Here are some of ICF’s advantages:
- The concrete component makes it strong and more durable against strong winds.
- Fireproof due to the concrete fire-retardant quality.
- Increases energy efficiency due to its insulation and air-tightness.
- Resists mold and termites.
- Blocks outdoor noise.
- Easy to install as the forms are factory manufactured.
- Can be eco-friendly if it’s made from recycled materials.
- Has no additional costs over regular construction. It can even be less expensive, as of recent, due to the significant increase in the price of wood. Finally, it can save 50 – 75% on utility and insurance costs.
ICFs brought Overland’s attention to the storm and fire-proof type construction and ignited his mission of building climate resilience.
Climate Resilience Strategies
Using ICF, the design already addresses climate risks such as strong winds, wildfires, and extreme temperatures. Thinking of ways to mitigate climate risks further and make homes stronger, Overland has been adding more components to make his designs more climate-resilient. The following strategies were implemented in Overland’s own home:
- Exterior walls: The main component is the mentioned ICF applied to the exterior walls.
- Roof: The roof is composed of structural insulated panels (SIP), a strong panel with foam insulation covered with a long-lasting coating, and integrated rain gutters. Instead of roof rafters to hold the roof in place and prevent it from blowing off with high winds, the panels have a built-in structural member, eliminating the typical thermal bridging caused by roof rafters. SIPs are manufactured in a factory and then delivered to the site for installation. Overland found SIP roofs less expensive and easier to install than ICF roofs.
- Interior walls and floors: to continue the thought of using fire-resistant materials, metal studs are used in the interior walls. The metal studs are manufactured in a factory and set up with openings and delivered to the site.
- Windows and doors: Triple pane doors and windows increase energy efficiency. Laminate between the window panels helps withstand strong winds by preventing a flying object from penetrating the glass.
- Shade: Exterior window overhangs block the high summer sun and allow it to enter when it is lower in the winter. In addition, programmable shades automatically close or open in reaction to temperature.
- Efficient heating and cooling: In-floor radiant heat pump exchanges warm and cool water to control the temperature indoors. In addition, Energy Recovered Ventilation (ERV) is used for efficiently bringing fresh air into the home.
Overland mentions that his “homeowners insurance is about a third of what it would have been if he used regular construction. Indicating design strategies such as using concrete exterior, metal stud interior walls, and no roof rafters allowed a significant premium discount.
The International Residential Code has adopted the Prescriptive Code regarding ICFs and addresses them in detail.
Overland states that “building codes haven’t caught up with his type of construction” and the materials used in the design inherently far exceed the building codes. For example:
- ICF inherently exceeds wind load requirements.
- In Connecticut, the blower door test requires a maximum of 3 complete air exchanges in one hour. The Ash Creek House blower door test result was 0.9 due to the designed materials and without using additional strategies.
- The property is located in a flood zone. The requirement for the specific location was elevation 12 feet, while the main floor is raised up to 16.5 feet. The garage is located underneath the main floor so only the cars are at risk of flooding. Yet, Overland trusts the ICF that surrounds that area will protect even the cars.
One of the challenges in building climate resilience is communicating the resilient design with contractors and subcontractors. Beyond verbal communication, the actual information is shared via the design plans and specifications. The plans should be highly detailed including a specification that indicates all the products and all the reinforcing bars.
The level of detail of Overland’s plans results in about 40 sheets of drawings and another 50-page specification that layout also the sustainable development goals and climate change.
Another challenge has to do with the actual materials used during the construction. In most projects, contractors choose the products and the manufacturer. Since the quality and durability of the products and materials are crucial, the architect can specify the desired material and use the phrase “or equal” to allow the contractors the freedom to decide.
In his home project, Overland was more involved. He wanted to train and educate all the builders and include them in this type of construction he believes in.
Another challenge is communicating and educating clients about climate resilience. For example, trying to convey to clients that a building with strong materials such as ICF, which inherently protects from high winds, might make a saferoom redundant.
Yet, Overland feels the increase in clients’ awareness and their desire to have a more resilient home. Nine years ago, he had to educate every single new client. In recent years he notices increasing interest in a design that specifically includes ICF.
Peoples’ awareness increases also because more are experiencing extreme weather events personally and are trying to avoid the risks, costs, and recurring damages associated with non-resilient constructions.
Overland believes that “although change is slow, there is much more awareness and traction. The word is getting out there”.
Sharing the Climate-Resilient Design Knowledge
Overland believes in building climate resilience and takes effort in spreading the word.
He wants homeowners to realize that “they don’t need to pay so much for heating or for insurance and they don’t have to be paying with their lives”. He wants them to “understand it’s a no-brainer: not expensive, comfortable, beautiful, and strong”.
Overland is doing his best to communicate climate-resilience design to professionals, and to educate homeowners about sustainable growth and development. He participates in different networking groups, interviews fairly often, educates and trains contractors he works with and is doing what he can in his desired scope of work.
But he doesn’t stop there. Overland created a website called The Next Great America Home in which he shares as much information as possible including strategies, contacts, and products. He even provides the public with an opportunity to see the whole process of a house being built by installing cameras on the construction sites and capturing the construction process.
Overland trusts that architects hold the power of influence in building climate resilience. “Once an architect specifies something, it’s very hard for the contractors to do something different”. Yet he believes the manufacturers need to do their part as well and “get out there and educate the architects. Even more importantly, they need to educate the clientele”. By choosing knowledgeable architects, homeowners can influence the demand for climate-resilient design and can influence architects to get educated.
Overland walks the walk. He designed his own house in a climate-resilient design and used the materials he believes in. He now experiences personally the performance of his own design and loves it. He believes his home ambiance promotes the use of ICF and opens his house for people who want to see and experience it.
Coming across a material that provides solutions for many types of risks that homeowners are facing today, changed Overland’s design philosophy. ICFs are strong, energy-efficient, fire, mold, and termite-proof, they can be sustainable and can be used in any type of building, adding resilience as well as beautiful design attributes. Overland’s designs start from this center component and try to add more climate-resilient materials, understanding there will be a growing need for it as extreme weather events accelerate in frequency and intensity.
We share Overland’s mission to educate homeowners and professionals with the need to build smarter and more climate-resilient. And we agree that architecture should be beautiful AND resilient.
We hope that more homeowners and contractors will join us in transforming residential construction with their own versions of a climate-resilient, safe and comfortable home.