Is It Even Possible To Design Buildings That Can Withstand 250 MPH Typhoon Winds?

Technically? Yes. But as we found out when we talked to three expert architects and building scientists, the answer isn't that simple.

In the tragic wake of Typhoon Haiyan, which has killed over 2,000 people (and counting) and has destroyed entire coastal villages in the Philippines, the conversation inevitably turns to prevention. How can we avoid such wide-scale disaster in the future?

Architects and designers are left to address some important questions in the aftermath: Can they design buildings to survive the increasingly strong storms packing winds as forceful as Haiyan and as the tornadoes leveling cities like Joplin, Missouri? What architectural innovations could save lives in the future? And are these interventions even affordable?

Co.Design spoke with experts on building science, disaster prevention, and resilient design about whether it's possible to build towns and cities capable of withstanding winds upwards of 250 mph.

Alex Wilson, President, Resilient Design Institute

It is possible to design buildings to withstand 250 mph winds. You can buy tornado doors that are rated to 300 mph, but those are very expensive. Thick, laminated, and reinforced glass is available that can withstand 250 mph wind, but again, cost is a major issue.

Some construction systems are far more wind-resilient than others. To minimize wind damage, the following strategies can be employed: hip roofs offer much less wind resistance than gable roofs; metal tie-down (hurricane) straps that tie the roof structure all the way down to the foundation and various structural connectors can dramatically reduce uplift, which is the cause of the most significant roof damage in hurricanes; hurricane shutters can protect windows from most wind-blown debris; roof overhangs should be limited to about 20 inches or designed to break-away (a relatively new idea I just came across). In general the strongest construction systems are reinforced concrete, as can be achieved with insulated concrete forms or ICFs.

Image: Storm shutters via Wikipedia

Unfortunately, buildings designed to withstand 250 mph wind would be priced out of the income range of most people--especially those in the most vulnerable regions, such as the Philippines. In general, design for such extreme wind resistance can only be justified for emergency management buildings and buildings in extreme environments, such as research stations on Antarctica. Even the most stringent building code in the U.S., the Miami-Dade County code, assumes a design wind speed of only 146 mph.

That said, even designing buildings to withstand 140 or 150 mph winds would be a huge step up from conventional practice today. I have long advocated extending wind provisions of the Miami-Dade County hurricane code to much of the U.S.

Henry L. Green, Hon. AIA, President, National Institute of Building Sciences

Theoretically, it is possible to build structures to withstand such extreme wind events. However, there are a variety of concerns about taking such an approach in response to the rebuilding of an area devastated by this type of event. Naturally, cost is probably the most prohibitive factor. Additionally, the frequency of such events and the likelihood that they will occur in a particular region is limited, so the level of risk is insufficient to warrant such an investment. Other competing interests including the affordability of housing and availability of resources/sustainability are likely to influence the decision on whether to require building to such levels.

Image: Antarctica, Flickr user Skaboii

Within a community, building codes should serve as the baseline for acceptable levels of risk and how structures should be designed and constructed to withstand an event that could occur at a pre-determined frequency or at a particular level of severity. In the U.S., the strictest requirement for wind events along the coast requires resistance to 130-mph winds. Tornados have similar requirements to withstand 110-mph winds. FEMA’s approach to tornados of greater than 110 mph is to suggest the use of storm shelters/safe rooms. While such extreme events currently occur very infrequently, should they become more frequent due to climate change, prevailing design criteria may need to be re-examined.

Michael Lingerfelt, Chairman of the AIA’s National Disaster Assistance Committee

It is possible to build to resist strong winds. One thing you can do is design a safe room within your home as a place for you and your family to go during a storm and be safe. It might look like a pantry or a closet during normal operation, but in the case of high-strength winds, you go in and you’re safe. It doesn’t need to look like a bunker, but you need to be careful to design it so that it stays in place and is impregnable for airborne debris flying around. FEMA has guidelines for such safe rooms.

Image: Sloped Roof, Bermuda via Wikipedia

Garage doors are usually the first things to fail, so to build resiliently, you can add box beams that will reinforce them. Any hole in that wall is going to cause negative pressure on both sides, which will make the home explode from within.

If you’re in a hurricane zone, having a door that swings in instead of out is one of your weak spots. If your front door swung out, your home would be more resilient. I live in hurricane Florida, so one thing we try to stress is designing roofs in a manner that creates an airflow--it might be sloped on four sides like a milk carton. High winds usually peel a roof off like a can opener. Airflow prevents this.

In terms of affordability, there have been studies showing that somewhere around $2,000 can make your home more resilient--that’s less than your granite countertop--so is it affordable? Yes, but you have to put your money in strategic locations. FEMA will tell you that for $1 spent in mitigation, it saves the Federal Government $4. That has nothing to do with your insurance, or community-based funds. When you sit down and say, if I spend $1 of mitigation I’ll at least save the federal government $4 and I might save my life, you realize it’s worth it.

[Image: Flickr user Mansunides]

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18 Comments

  • Shaun Weir

    Could we take a page out of the Gerry Anderson STINGRAY TV series where buildings are on hydraulic struts and would disappear into the ground in a tornado situation. Or evacuation shelters at least. they could be topped with Glass/Perspex domes to seal the building from water when secured below ground. You could maybe have a system that when the building drops below surface level a sleeve comes up from the ground around the building perimeter which would protect the building from on rushing water and debris angled surfaces would deflect the oncoming debris and water around it.......its not going to be cheap but may be a solution that wold save lives and valuable buildings.......Shaun...Coventry UK.

  • Sam.K.Varghese

    In such calamities where the speed exceed 150 mph,it's pertinent reveiw the shape factor of structures.Building mighty walls and roof is not the answer rather the design criteria shall be such that loss of life and damage to be minimum in case of collapse.

  • Ramon Tinio

    In the Philippines, where cost is an issue, I think safe rooms made from reinforced concrete would be the way to go. Additionally, n coastal areas, the safe room would have to be raises about 2 or 3 meters above the highest tide water line.

  • teckdeck2008

    I just wanted to point on that it seems like a major oversight to not include opinions of structural engineers. I am a structural engineering graduate student and I believe that the decision about the support structure design (roofing system, type of tie downs used, material selection for safety shelter) are done by structural engineers. I'm willing to give architects credit where it is due, but can we not sell the structural engineers short on their input in this issue.

  • hawkeye57

    All professions should come together and examine different structure and materials.. Stop doing jerry rigged fixes on traditional bad design, like Dade County

  • teckdeck2008

    I do agree with you that we need to fix the designs. The easiest ones are mentioned in the article; better tie downs for the roof and doors that open outward. However, I will say that if it is retrofit, it is far more difficult to design for these wind and storm surge loads. It is actually a whole separate field of civil structural engineering and that is the reason why.

  • Steve

    Wallace Neff, an architect from LA, looked at this problem and affordability of homes years ago. He came up with a design for dome shaped homes using an inflatable balloon to keep the construction costs minimal.He could build a home in day. He had a dream of creating affordable, hurricane and earthquake resistant homes for the world. Bajadomehomes has revived his technique for Mexico and Monolithic in Texas is also doing world wide construction using Mr Neff's technique. Remember Katrina and all the people that took shelter in the Super dome?
    Could be a solution for the people of the Philippines.

  • David Keeton

    Strengthening structures is not the only effectively damage
    mitigation available. Other mitigation alternatives include aerodynamic roof edging which dramatically reduces uplift
    forces by changing the way winds flow over the roof. One such product that is available today is AeroEdge® which was developed by Renaissance Reinsurance, an industry leader in
    catastrophe insurance and risk mitigation. AeroEdge® has been subjected to a battery of tests including full scale
    tests at Florida International University’s Wall of Wind, wind tunnel testing in Ontario, Canada and ANSI ES-1 pull out tests which have subsequently been approved by the Miami-Dade Building Department.

    By significantly reducing the uplift forces AeroEdge® increases the wind speeds required to initiate roof damage (a leading source of water damage in the most landfilling hurricanes) the same way strengthening does at a fraction of the cost of strengthening.

    AeroEdge® roof edging is available through the US licensee
    AeroEdge USA of Florida or their manufacturing partner, Hickman Engineered Systems of North Carolina.

  • Gilbert Lavides

    You also have to deal with flood. How about a submarine shelter or an ark maybe?

  • Celine Bernadette Francisco

    Living in the Philippines myself, it looks quite an investment really -- to build a house as such. But since it'll be very badly needed, especially if the location's near typhoon-stricken areas, that's better than having to cry later for having not done anything.. But then again, due to limited budget, many of us can't afford these materials for our homes. Unless we're really earning skyrocketing figures here (or we go abroad), that would be quite challenging (especially for those below poverty levels). :( That, perhaps, could be looked into by the common people, the government, supporting agencies and private orgs.

  • devorahf

    What about cob? Is it similar enough to concrete? It's like adobe but monolithic. Those types of buildings stand all over the world for hundreds of years. Those seaside towns in Greece in white and blue are often made of it.

  • iamhungry

    Cob buildings walls are about 24 inches thick. That might be okay for standalone houses where there is plenty of room but a lot of the affected areas in SE Asia have high population density too so it might not be suitable. Just a thought.

  • devorahf

    They can share some of those walls, and the walls can be made at 12in if they don't use straw bales for insulation.