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Engineers Design Tornado Proof Home 189

Posted by timothy
from the ready-for-that-f6 dept.
Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "Emily Badger writes at the Atlantic that it's not too hard to build a tornado proof home but it's pretty difficult to design one that's liveable. "If you made a perfect earthquake structure, it would be a bunker with 24-inch walls and one small steel door for you to get in," says architect Michael Willis. That structure would be based on the empirical measurements of structural engineers. "You could design it to be perfectly resistant. But it would not be a place you'd want to live." The task behind the "Designing Recovery" competition (PDF): was to design a liveable tornado proof home in a part of the country where the geology makes it impossible to build tornado cellars or basements. Q4 Architects designed a safe space within a home instead of a shelter underneath it, a kind of house inside of a house. The result is an idea that could be replicated anywhere in tornado alley: a highly indestructible 600 square-foot core of concrete masonry, hurricane shutters and tornado doors where a family could survive a tornado and live beyond it, with several more flexible (and affordable) rooms wrapped around it. "It's going to do it's best to fight the tornado," says Elizabeth George." "Part of your house might get torn away, but the most important parts of the house are safe. After the disaster, everything is not lost. You're able to keep the most valuable things, which are the people, the functions of the house, and maybe your valuables." The genius of this idea is that while it would be significantly more expensive to build out the same tornado precautions for the entire home, the CORE house is meant to be constructed for under $50,000."
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Engineers Design Tornado Proof Home

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  • by smitty_one_each (243267) * on Saturday October 05, 2013 @08:43AM (#45043415) Homepage Journal

    You're able to keep the most valuable things, which are the people, the functions of the house, and maybe your valuables

    Just putting that out there.

  • by DNS-and-BIND (461968) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @08:48AM (#45043423) Homepage
    "The Surprising Reason" houses don't have underground facilities? Maybe surprising to the provincial readers of The Atlantic, but obvious plain logic to everyone else. You'd think educated people would be aware of basic facts like clay soils and what they mean, but evidently that's no longer true. Saying things like "why didn't they just go to the basement, stupid Oklahomans" is like saying "idiotic famine victims, why didn't they just buy some food from the store?" Surprise, my ass.
    • by peragrin (659227) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @09:02AM (#45043471)

      what is even funnier is that tornado safe rooms have been designed for the last couple of decades, and a concrete bunker in the center of the house isn't a new idea.

      the problem is twofold.

      the average age of a house in the USA is 30-40 years old. that means things like decent insulation are still far beyond them let alone double pane windows. None of those houses can have a safe room easily or cheaply.

      Second none of these are cheap period. a $30,000 addition to even a $300,000 house is a serious investment. The people who really need these are those who can't afford them.

    • by ebno-10db (1459097) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @09:21AM (#45043541)

      Get your nose out of the clouds. Surprisingly, most people are not familiar with the type of soil in Oklahoma, and how it affects construction. This denizen of the East Coast found the article interesting and informative. BTW, I presume you're familiar with the details of how barrier islands shift, what preservation efforts do and don't work for them (and why), the stability of different varieties of coastal sand bluffs, the hydrology of Long Island, which affects millions of people, the reason for the hump in the Manhattan sky line, and how despite the explanation for that, the tallest building in the country could still be built in Chicago.

    • by unrtst (777550) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @12:46PM (#45045039)

      "The Surprising Reason" houses don't have underground facilities? Maybe surprising to the provincial readers of The Atlantic, but obvious plain logic to everyone else

      Maybe I missed something, but the article doesn't seem to clearly explain why.

      The ground is mostly clay, and it's not very stable. I get that. However, it also says, "one in 10 Oklahomans have access to the basements". So it's entirely possible, and not that uncommon.

      On the question of possibility of building a tornado proof house, one expert said, "You can, but your neighbors probably would not like it in their neighborhood and you would need some of Bill Gates's wealth to pay for it."
      Later, the article says, "And those large shelters, Tanner says, are now becoming more common in places like mobile home parks and schools -- areas that house large concentrations of people over long stretches of time."
      I'm sorry, but if your neighborhood is a mobile home part, I hope you have already abandoned the thought of caring what your neighbors house looks like. In addition, none of the solutions are going to work for your dwelling. It's a cheap box on wheels that was probably plopped down on a couple cinder blocks.
      And yes, I know those two sentences weren't next to each other in the article, but they were put into the same article.

      That's the problem with that article. They shouldn't mix up stats that include these chunks of the population that are entirely unrelated to their solutions and problems. The solution for a mobile home park - don't put it in the middle of a giant flat plain in OK! The solution for real houses with average building costs - put in a basement even if you have to cut back on the scale of the house. If your plot of land sucks so bad you can't afford to do it, then don't build there or build one of those eyesore concrete domes.

      The article even blames suburban sprawl at the end. That's a whole other problem, and those contributing to it, especially in OK, are idiots. It's not about what they can afford; they are making poor decisions, favoring land and/or house size over structural integrity.

  • by onyxruby (118189) <> on Saturday October 05, 2013 @08:48AM (#45043425)

    Living in tornado alley I must protest that one does not make a tornado "proof" home, one makes a tornado resistant home. The idea that you can make a home tornado "proof" is greatly misleading and like saying you can make an armored vehicle bomb "proof". You can only make things resistant to a given degree - this in important technicality on a tech site.

    Tornadoes are these machinations of nature that are perfectly capable of lifting the foundations of a freeway out of a ground and flinging semi trucks through the air. When the news covers an area that was hit the word used to describe the people that lived is always "survived". Bad headline, bad headline.

  • by MetricT (128876) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @08:58AM (#45043459) Homepage

    The walls may help shield from debris in the event of a EF-1 to 3 (which granted is the vast majority of tornadoes). But there isn't much on this earth (above ground, anyway) that's going to survive a direct hit from an EF-5 tornado.

    My dad saw the track left by one that hit in Alabama years ago. The thing sucked up everything, including grass, in a 1/2 mile wide path. The only thing left behind was orange clay. There wasn't a single intact structure left, not even foundations.

    Closest thing humanity has to a EF-5 -proof structure is probably the pyramids in Giza, and I'm not sure about that either.

    • by rasmusbr (2186518) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @09:54AM (#45043737)

      If the tornado left behind clay then you can pretty sure that a shallow dome-shaped building with concrete walls (or thick clay walls for that matter) would survive.

      I would think the key to building a completely and utterly tornado-proof building is building it out of heavy materials that are hard for the wind to pick up and making sure the airflow over the building remains smooth and free of turbulence. You want smooth, flowing exterior surfaces. You do not want flat walls and corners that create turbulence.

      The hard part is coming up with a practical and reasonably priced home that would also be completely tornado-proof. There are lots of good practical and economical reasons why most houses are more or less shaped like cuboids.

    • by tp1024 (2409684) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @10:23AM (#45043981)

      Joplin Hospital begs to differ. Yet, it was still standing and moved by all of 4 inches (which, however, was sufficient to make it uneconomic to repair). People died either because they couldn't be moved away from the windows in time (being in a bed in a hospital). Or because they depended on ventilators for breathing that lost power due to wind/hail/rain damage on powerlines and emergency backup.

      Reinforced concrete is perfectly sufficient to withstand an EF-5. Unfortunately, most buildings in the US are made of reinforced cardboard.

      • by Gavagai80 (1275204) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @03:02PM (#45046145) Homepage
        Hospitals are not residence-sized buildings. Make something huge enough and sure it'll survive.
        • by tp1024 (2409684) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @06:58PM (#45047485)

          Quite the opposite actually. The smaller you build something, the easier it is for it to survive. The larger the house, the larger the area where the wind can push, the larger the forces that all the walls and structural members have to handle. Nobody would use the same thick walls of the first or second floor of a 14 storey building, if you weren't going to put the other 12 floors on top of it. It would be ludicrously overengineered for such a small thing.

          It is much easier to build a small building to last a tornado than a big one. It is only hard to do so, if you think that two-by-fours are the paragon of stability.

  • by CaptainOfSpray (1229754) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @09:20AM (#45043537)
    Not a surprise that a piece about dgging a storm-proof hole is written by someone called Emily Badger.
  • by TomGreenhaw (929233) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @09:27AM (#45043561)
    I met a guy who built homes by pouring concrete into Styrofoam forms with rebar. After that it was brick veneer or siding outside and the usual stuff on the inside. He said they also tied the roof using the same materials they do in hurricane prone areas. He said homes like this had been hit dead on by tornadoes and other than broken windows and superficial damage were essentially unharmed. This building technique also make a very energy efficient home.
  • by Provocateur (133110) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @09:32AM (#45043583) Homepage

    ...and the engineers said almost the same thing but their design was a strucutr that looked like a pyramid

    Well, the pharaoh's still there sleeping, isn't he?

  • by Lumpy (12016) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @09:32AM (#45043585) Homepage

    Richard Buckminster "Bucky" Fuller had built several that are tornado and hurricane proof. He made several concrete dome homes that have taken the worst that nature can dish out and only need minor repairs.

    Heck they are sharknado proof.

  • by argStyopa (232550) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @09:34AM (#45043599) Journal

    It's an interesting challenge, and forces architectural 'entrpreneurs' to think through some of the relevant issues.

    However....I'd guess that the best that will come from this is a few decent ideas that *may* make things a little bit better. I hope so anyway.

    For example: it's a market fact that people are willing to spend very little $ on pure safety features. Witness the great swathes of country where a basement or even simply storm cellar would radically increase the chances of tornado survival....and yet people still don't use them. A storm cellar is a TRIVIAL cost; with a backhoe and some 4x4's or larger timbers, one could be built in a couple of hours. With a couple of strong backs and shovels, a couple of weekends (digging sucks).

    Of course, the idea being out there that there is a "tornado proof home" has a couple of drawbacks; most certainly these homes are carefully specc'd and designed....meaning an unscrupulous developer could build homes that 'look a lot like them', sell them as 'tornado-resistant' but in fact using substandard parts that make them even more lethal. Further, there's always the 'false sense of security' problem: instead of sensibly taking cover when timely warning is received, an owner of such a house is likely to rationalize "Ah, my house is tornado proof, I'll just stand out here taking youtube video until the last second!"

    Finally, the fact is that almost nothing above ground is tornado proof. At best, you're buying yourself some percentages against small and medium tornado activity...which for a given house, in reality, is a vanishingly unlikely occurrence even in tornado ally.

  • by ebno-10db (1459097) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @09:38AM (#45043623)

    Does anyone know if this type of soil is why houses don't have basements in San Diego? I don't live there, but even locals don't seem to know why.

  • by kilodelta (843627) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @09:38AM (#45043625) Homepage
    I watched a video some time back about a hurricane proofed house. It looked pretty much like a standard house. But when that thing shuttered up it was sealed TIGHT. And I do know that Stanley of all companies designed a nail that would not just tear out of wood, thereby lessening the chance roof components could be lifted.

    You can build a structure to combat hurricanes and tornadoes - but it isn't going to be THAT cheap. Given that fact I have no intention of living anywhere beyond the northeast U.S. None! Sure, we get a little geologic action from time to time, and hurricanes get here about once every 30 or so years though the cycle seems to have been shortened lately.
    • by Anubis IV (1279820) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @09:31PM (#45048271)

      You guys just have to deal with blizzards that can knock out power and make driving difficult for extended periods of time.

      Why not the southwest? Generally not too much geologic activity, no real hurricanes or tornadoes to speak of, etc.. There's a reason data centers are being built like crazy in Las Vegas (beyond the fact that the backbones go through there).

      Even central Texas isn't too bad. Hurricanes don't get that far inland, you're far enough south to avoid most of Tornado Alley, and there's virtually no geologic activity to speak of.

      Having lived in south Florida for about a decade, the hurricanes really aren't that bad (no worse than the blizzards you guys get in the northeast, I'd wager). The houses down there are built like bunkers, with walls made of reinforced cinderblock all around, sloped roofs that are reinforced, no flat walls that could catch too much wind and get toppled unless they were reinforced by chimneys or additional structure, rooms inside that are reinforced with plumbing and other structural elements so that they can withstand the wind and the collapse of the roof, shutters for all of the windows that are designed to take major hits, and nowadays they're coming with those windows that can take direct hits at 80 mph and the like. You really only need to evacuate if something at category 4 or above is going to go directly over you or your house isn't up to code (which was the issue with the devastation that Hurricane Andrew caused). Anything less and you throw a party so long as the power doesn't go out.

      When we moved to Texas, we were aghast that the houses right on the Gulf Coast were being built with wood construction and no reinforcement at all (many of the coastal ones were even on stilts). That also explained why people were so quick to evacuate when even a relatively mild-by-Florida-standards hurricane would come through. We stuck out Hurricane Andrew in Florida with almost no damage at all, but we evacuated for pretty much everything headed our way in Texas since we knew we'd have no chance (and our concerns were validated after we helped clean up the damage back when Ike wiped out Galveston).

      Of course, if Yellowstone blows, we're all screwed, and not just Americans. Everyone. I heard a stat the other day suggesting it would bury the surrounding 1000 miles in 10 feet of volcanic ash if it blew.

  • by hort_wort (1401963) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @09:41AM (#45043641)

    My cave does just fine already. Free AC and heat year round too. Mold is kinda a problem. And bears.

  • by Saethan (2725367) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @09:58AM (#45043765)
    My grandma bought a house 20 years ago in Topeka, KS, and had the entire thing reconstructed. She still couldn't get a basement, so she had steel-reinforced concrete put around her closet. Bam. Tornado-proof-house-in-a-house. This is a non-story.
  • Bad idea. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by 140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @10:08AM (#45043851) Journal
    It will let people survive to rebuild in an area unsuitable for human occupation again and again. They will take our tax dollars through FEMA again and again. Unless people are asked to pay full price of their decisions, such shelters would lead to more financial pain, tax burden to others. People who decided not to live in plywood boxes in tornado country, or in wildfire area or below the sea level between a lake and the sea, or below the river level etc should not be asked to shoulder the burden of supporting people who made foolish decisions on where to build their homes. One unexpected natural disaster? We all should pitch in. But supporting unviable habitation through taxes, insurance subsidies, and disaster relief on known and predictable disasters distorts the marketplace.

    You want the freedom to live anywhere in America? Go for it, and pay full price for it. No disaster relief, no insurance subsidies. FEMA should annonce phased withdrawal of tornado support in known tornado regions, wildfire suppression in scrub country, flood insurance in known flood prone areas, or hurricane relief in known hurricane prone coastal areas. Emergency relief is only for areas where the disaster is very infrequent. It is not a routine operation.

    Probably the right solution for tornado country is to stop the stupid urban sprawl, create towns with a nucleus of concrete condos, two or three stories tall, tightly built in a circle with a pool and courtyard in the middle. Windows with aluminium shutters that can be closed, cars parked at ground level below these condos. You need concrete structures to survive tornadoes and do the compromise necessary to do it. Or pay full price for freedom. I am sick and tired of supporting your unnatural life style choice to live in plastic and plywood boxes in tornado country.

    • Re:Bad idea. (Score:5, Informative)

      by hankwang (413283) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @01:28PM (#45045379) Homepage

      People who decided not to live in plywood boxes in tornado country, or in wildfire area or below the sea level between a lake and the sea, or below the river level etc should not be asked to shoulder the burden

      For hurricanes and floodings, which could devastate large areas in a single event, I see your point. However, a single tornado usually impacts only a small area. The probability of an individual house in Tornado Alley being struck by an F4 or F5 tornado seems to be 10^(-7) per year []. Economically, it makes more sense to insure the risk than to build an F4-tornado-proof house. I couldn't find probabilities for F3 tornadoes, but I could imagine that a similar argument holds there.

      • by Anubis IV (1279820) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @09:36PM (#45048291)

        Financially, it probably does make more sense to simply insure against the loss, as you said.

        But keep in mind that people can't evacuate from tornadoes like they can with hurricanes, so not having precautions like these is essentially a death sentence for the individuals in the path of a tornado like that. Did you remember to factor the cost of life in? And even if you did, telling people that it makes more sense to simply insure the loss is the same as telling them that those lives are only worth as much as the insurance. Perhaps true, but still quite cold.

    • by westlake (615356) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @03:16PM (#45046233)

      It will let people survive to rebuild in an area unsuitable for human occupation again and again.

      New York City began a North Atlantic port with connections to the Great Lakes and the Midwest. The Mohawk Valley providing a pass through the Appalachian mountains. New Orleans as a Gulf port with access to the whole of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio River valleys.

      If you are looking for gainful employment and a place to live, you tend to be drawn to places that have fertile land, fresh water, good communications, the potential for trade, agricultural and industrial development.

      The geography and climate that makes these places interesting and viable also tends to make them dangerous.

  • by iggymanz (596061) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @10:47AM (#45044127)

    paying tens of thousands of extra dollars for something that probably won't happen is a waste. better to play the odds and have low cost houses, sometimes a minute amount of people will die *shrug*

  • by safetyinnumbers (1770570) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @11:14AM (#45044311)
    Presumably intended to handle hurricanes and flooding instead of tornadoes, the kettle house in Galveston TX is an inverted metal dome, (although I don't know why it has a door at ground level).
  • by rossdee (243626) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @11:27AM (#45044427)

    They probably have some Minuteman Missile Silos being decommissioned , they would be tornado proof.

  • by Ralph Ostrander (2846785) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @01:16PM (#45045277)
    Wind has nothing to push
  • by littlewink (996298) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @01:58PM (#45045627)
    like in science-fiction movies. I envision a hardened shell, coffin-like (but they could be spherical or any shape really), whose entry is flush with the ground. Each would be anchored or chained at a number of points to galvanized stakes (like fence stakes) driven deep into the ground. When a tornado approaches, you climb into your escape pod and latch it shut until the storm passes. This could be cheap and effective for all but the claustrophobic.
    • by littlewink (996298) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @02:11PM (#45045753)

      Protect yourself by climbing into the pipe.

      It would have to be buried or anchored and topped with earth/asphalt/gravel/concrete to streamline air flow over the pipe.

      Normally a culvert pipe is laid horizontally and could hold a number of people. Or you could use short sections and set them in the ground vertically. When trouble comes you climb in with a built-in ladder. Although these would be more trouble to maintain because:

      • - snakes, bugs and rodents would like to live there too,
      • - would be like having giant prairie dog holes in your yard: not very safe unless they had good covers.

      Just as in a pinch, an underpass or a culvert pipe is a safe haven in a tornado, so this could cheaply save a group of people. And it wouldn't be as difficult as escape pods for those with claustrophobia.

  • by dutchwhizzman (817898) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @03:12PM (#45046201)
    People most at risk of tornadoes are the people living in trailer parks, not the ones living in homes. Sure, maybe the homes aren't tornado proof, quite a few of them get blown away every year and every year, people living in them get hurt or die when they get blown away with their homes when they are in them. But, they are a minority when it comes to people that die in their homes compared to when a tornado hits a trailer park. A trailer is about the worst place to be when a tornado hits and casualties are much bigger when it comes to people living there. It's not just the density of a trainer park, way more people per square foot, but also the even weaker construction of the "building". Building a brand new home for not a lot more money that is much better at sustaining a tornado is a good development, but it won't save that much more lives and futures. Come up with an affordable, tornado proof trailer and you have a true life saver and a real novelty.
  • by pubwvj (1045960) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @04:21PM (#45046637) Homepage

    There is no need to spend $50K. I designed and built a masonry (steel reinforced concrete, ferrocement and stone) small (252 sq-ft) home for our family for $7K. It is great to live in. It is also tornado proof but that is merely incidental. Because of it having a high thermal mass inside an insulating envelope it also stays cool in the summer and warm in the winter which saves more money every year on energy costs.

  • by Karmashock (2415832) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @09:02PM (#45048125)

    It sounds crazy but they make a lot of sense.

    1. Heating and cooling is less of an issue. The earth holds a pretty consistent temperature and you can regulate your home by exploiting it.

    2. Winds, hurricanes, etc are less of an issue because you're either flush with the ground or nearly so.

    3. The roof can more easily be used as a garden or expansion to your property. All natural light comes in through skylights.

    4. The major problem will be flooding. There are a variety of ways to deal with that from simply building on high ground to building some sort of double wall into the foundation so that water can collect there and drain away without entering the home. Pumps... etc.

    I don't know... maybe its a dumb idea but I'd like to see some people try it. Imagine if your full property foot print could be turned into a backyard while your home rested below the ground. Every room with a skylight. Cool in the summer. Warm in the winter.

    I just think its a nice idea.

  • by SuperKendall (25149) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @11:07PM (#45048615)

    I don't understand the need for this. Tomatoes are simply to small and soft to pose much peril to a house, even in large numbers. The only way there could possibly be a danger is if somehow they were exposed to large quantities of radiation, clearly impossible.

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