Strong Buildings, Resilient Communities

November 13, 2017

By Mary Kate McGowan, Associate Editor, News  (Find the complete article from High Performing Buildings Magazine at

Eleven months after residents of Orange Beach, Ala., returned to their homes to clean up the damage from Hurricane Ivan, they had to evacuate again to flee Hurricane Katrina’s wrath in 2005. 

The back-to-back hurricanes damaged hundreds of thousands of homes, making it difficult for residents to resume their normal lives.

“When people can’t come back to their house, it affects that family, but it also affects the city as a whole. You never really recover fully until you can get those people back at home and back to work,” said Landon Smith, the City of Orange Beach’s chief building official and floodplain administrator.

Since the storms, Orange Beach mandates various resiliency requirements to fortify its buildings.

“Resiliency has got to be achieved at the community level. If you’ve got one resilient house over here and one over there, that’s not resilience. Even though you’ve got those families back, you still don’t have your community back,” he said. 

Storms come fast and bring destruction often described as unprecedented and unbelievable.

During the last weekend in August, Hurricane Harvey stalled over Texas, dumping excessive rainfall amounts on southeast Texas and parts of Louisiana. Harvey’s floods turned roads into waterways as first responders used boats to rescue those in danger from the rising waters. 

As HPB Magazine was going to press, some parts of the Houston metropolitan area had already seen more than 30 inches of rain, and the Weather Channel reported the city could be inundated with more rain in the week after Harvey made landfall. 

The flood disaster could be the worst in American history, according to the Weather Channel. 

Resilient buildings are strong enough to survive and operate during climate events—such as floods—and can adapt to deal with future threats. And, with scientists predicting stronger climatic events ahead, the value of resiliency is increasingly being recognized. For example, the U.S. Green Building Council awarded the first LEED Resilient Design Pilot Credit in October 2016. 

Resiliency Varies by Location

Climatic and economic challenges vary city-by-city and region-by-region, so no one-size-fits-all resiliency plan exists that can protect cities, buildings and people against weather events. 

More than half—52%—of Americans live near a coast along a body of water, according to the National Ocean Service. Historically, the more populated cities are situated along coasts internationally as well. These locations near waterways provided convenient access to trade routes, but the nearness to water and its climatic effects and storms also challenge the cities’ infrastructures. The threats vary by coast, challenging each city to find customized strategies and solutions.

When it comes to building resilient buildings and communities, cities, engineers, architects and other industry professionals throughout the world are developing and implementing strategies to strengthen their communities in hopes of surviving and thriving after the next storm. 

Rebuilding Stronger

Storms on the Gulf Coast. 

Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina scratched away at Orange Beach’s already depleted beachfront—the city’s first line of defense. 

Since the storms, Orange Beach has poured millions of dollars into building up the beachfront through beach nourishment practices and building up the dune system, Smith said. 

If storms are ever strong enough to best Orange Beach’s developed beaches, the beachfront structures are now stronger and meet up-to-date building codes. The city’s flood hazards maps have also been stringently upgraded, he said. 

Prior to Hurricane Ivan in 2004, Orange Beach was using older building codes. The city now uses the most current international codes with a coastal code supplement. 

The FORTIFIED Home code-plus program is one supplement that emphasizes resilient roofing, and roof damage is one of the most common types of storm damage, Smith said.

“When you lose the roof, basically you have a bucket, and that bucket fills up with water,” he said.

Orange Beach construction projects are required to fulfill the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety’s FORTIFIED construction program requirements, which include using different building materials. For example, FORTIFIED requires projects to use a peel-and-stick material (as opposed to felt paper) that adheres to the roof deck or a type of synthetic underlayment that will not deteriorate or blow away when roof shingles are blown off during a storm. The standards also recommend high wind-grade shingles or metal roofs, Smith said. 

Building scientist Joseph Lstiburek, Ph.D., P.Eng., Fellow ASHRAE, said buildings in hurricane-prone areas should not have vented roofs, which are likely to blow off during a storm. Unvented roofs are also energy efficient, saving energy throughout the year, he said. 

“That’s because the mechanical systems are no longer outside in a hot, humid attic. They’re not located inside of a conditioned space. So we get a three-for-one here,” he said. “If we size our cooling equipment properly, the extra cost involved in constructing the roof in an unvented manner can be paid for by downsizing the size of the air-conditioning system, because I don’t need it to be as big anymore.”

Orange Beach allows for construction projects on the beachfront, but not past the coastal construction line, Smith said.

The city does not restrict what type of structure can be built on the beachfront as long as they are elevated to above the base flood elevation, according to Smith. Buildings built on the beach must be built on pilings that are required to be embedded to a certain depth depending on the building’s size and other factors. Single-family homes have to be built on pilings embedded about 25 ft into the ground, he said. 

Orange Beach also requires impact-resistant windows or some type of shutter system, which Smith said can withstand strong winds better than haphazardly set up plywood. 

“If we had the same storm today that we had in 2004, I think you would see a different outcome. I think you would be able to tell that these efforts that we’re making to make it more resilient work because you wouldn’t see as near the [amount of] damage as you saw back then,” he said.

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Information on Orange Beach Emergency Management can be found at