Thursday, June 22, 2006

You Bet Your Ass(ets)

Builders and homeowners are looking at making their new homes hurricane proof.

Until now, few buyers have been interested in superstrong houses. Those houses have usually cost far more and often looked more like ugly ducklings than cozy havens. Nor did officials along the Southern coasts generally require builders to fortify their construction. Florida began toughening building codes after the devastation of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, but it has been the exception. Until recently, building requirements were minimal in Mississippi and Louisiana.

But many of the new homes are proving more appealing. Demand has jumped sharply, and insurance companies are even offering policies at a discount in coastal areas where they are otherwise cutting back on coverage.

"People have seen what has happened in Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi and they know that what has happened can happen again," said Gopal Ahluwalia, the vice president for research for the National Association of Home Builders.

The new homes are several notches stronger than even the toughest building codes require. And many are being offered at surprisingly low prices. While the villas going up in the Florida Panhandle are selling for up to $5 million, Kristin Beall is offering her three-bedroom, 1,300-square-foot homes near Orlando for as little as $200,000. In Texas, Mr. Hayes is selling some of his stilt houses for $199,000, but his tiny studio model goes for as little as $99,000. He plans to build 140 of those houses and is clearing ground for 300 more equally strong houses that will start at $300,000.

It's all well and good that people want to exceed the building codes. But if they're expecting their new fortress to withstand the storm surge, I hope they are not betting their lives on it.

Architects and engineers can design structures to withstand 200 mph winds but not a 20 foot wall of water. The only reasonable reason to construct such homes is to protect the property against wind and rain damage. However, the cost of building such a dwelling has to be weighed against the value of what you're trying to protect.

Does it make since to build a two-million dollar house if the contents are worth only $150,000. It would be a better value to spend far less in order to reduce your insurance premiums yet make sure your covered adequately.

Material effects can be replaced, loved ones cannot. When the big one comes, bring the family and wedding photos, leave the stereo.


Dan said...

Argh! No contact information!

Anyhow, I'm trying to figure out why so many blogs link to certain urban planning-related sites, but not one that I've run since 1994. (I won't post the URL here, since I hate blog spamming.)

Please drop me a line: cybu rbia {a-t} cyb urbia {d 0 t} 0rg. Please delete this message after you've read it.

Michael Mehaffy said...

Hello Kinch -

There is a discussion of "hardening" houses, and the options for doing so, in the Gentilly charrette report, which is available at

Of course there are a lot of other issues covered in the report too. FYI I wrote the short summary below of the report for the Neighborhoods' Planning Network.

Cheers, m

The report is unusual, in that it proposes not only plans for the rebuilding of Gentilly specifically, but a framework by which these and other ideas can be integrated into a city-wide plan of action. The Gentilly consultant team recognized early on that individual plans would be of little value if they could not be integrated promptly into a suitable city-wide and state-wide framework, under which funding could be coordinated. Therefore, the team researched the requirements of such a framework, extensively consulting LRA, federal and city officials. The final report outlines such a framework, and details its specific proposals as part of the framework.

While a number of commentators have bemoaned the lack of a coordinated planning framework, the Gentilly community has now placed one on the table - well ahead of the August or December timetables under discussion. I think this is "just do it" neighborhood activism at its best.

Speaking as an individual, and not a spokesperson for the team, I believe it's high time for a "fast-track" approach to planning and design, and this plan lays out a way to do it. The money is already flowing from insurance companies and from speculators, and will begin flowing from the Federal government in August. Things are going to get built - possibly haphazardly, and wastefully. How can we ensure that the money will be spent where the neighborhoods need it, efficiently and in a coordinated way? How can we ensure that New Orleans neighborhoods be better than they were before the storm - not worse?

The Gentilly plan places neighborhood-based planning front and center in the process - not only to complete the framework city-wide, but to continue ongoing neighborhood participation, in the initial reconstruction and beyond. We propose "Neighborhood Planning Centers" - community planning resource centers, offering information and resources for home renovation as well as participation in ongoing planning at the neighborhood level. They're places where people can come to get expertise, learn about financial options, share ideas, plan together.

Tired of waiting, the neighborhoods of New Orleans have started a very important new neighborhood-based process. As part of that, the Gentilly neighborhood has seized an opportunity, and proposed a way to make it city-wide - not only because it's the best way to plan, but because it's needed, and soon.

The Gentilly Community charrette was hosted by the GCIA, and attended in person by over 1,000 Gentilly residents, and more via the web. The consultant team was led by Andres Duany, at the invitation of Councilmember Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, and included over 20 separate architecture and design firms, 5 specialty planning firms, 2 engineering firms, 2 NGOs, and 6 university academics. The report includes an extensive "After-Action Review" of each of the daily meetings, listing detailed comments from charrette participants.