Saturday, May 12, 2007

Twisted Priorities

I just read a news item about a Kansas town named Greensburg. 90 per cent of the town was destroyed by a tornado. Naturally, the town will have to be rebuilt. The question is not whether it will be rebuilt, but how it will be rebuilt.

According to the article, Governor Kathleen Sebelius wants to rebuild the town so that it will be "the greenest town in rural America". By "green", she means that construction will emphasize energy efficiency and sustainable energy sources.

The article says the following: "Chris Kliewer, president of the Wichita chapter of the American Institute of Architects, said he offered Sebelius the group's support in rebuilding the town by sharing the latest trends in technology and architecture."

Now, I have nothing against energy efficiency and sustainable energy sources. All new construction projects should take such factors into account whenever possible, it seems to me. But I have to wonder: Is that really the biggest priority in Greensburg? Shouldn't it be even more important to use construction methods which will significantly reduce the probability of devastating damage and destruction when the next big twister comes along?

Why is it that houses built in regions which are prone to damage from twisters and from high winds often don't seem to look noticeably different from houses built in other regions where twisters aren't a problem?

I'm not an engineer, I freely admit. But I've gone online and found a lot of information which would seem to be of interest and value to any community wishing to minimize damage from tornados and hurricanes. In particular, I've been fascinated by information on the web site for the Monolithic Dome Institute, which designs and builds a wide range of concrete domes for homes, schools, churches, commercial buildings and more. One page on the site says this:

The Monolithic Dome is a permanent structure which is energy efficient, cost effective, disaster resistant and attractive. They have real strength. They can withstand the force of a tornado, hurricane or earthquake. They cannot burn, rot or be eaten by bugs. They are energy efficient -- saving up to fifty percent or more on heating and cooling costs compared to a comparable conventional building.
Dome homes are not new. An Eskimo igloo is basically a dome made from blocks of ice. Ditto for a "wigwam" or "wickiup" (a traditional native American home), except that it's made from twigs, tree limbs, and other natural materials layered atop one another in order to create a dense dome-like structure.

Geodesic domes were originally introduced to the modern architectural community by Buckminster Fuller. It's said that they are more energy efficient than conventional homes. But the folks at the Monolithic Dome Institute say that their one-piece domes are superior to geodesic domes in many respects.

Domes aren't perfect. In fact, they leave a lot to be desired in terms of interior space. If you look at a floor plan designed for a typical dome home, you'll see that there are usually a lot of awkward little unused wedge shapes after furniture (which is normally square or rectangular) is put into place. Also, headroom can leave a lot to be desired in a smaller dome where the curvature towards the ceiling begins at the point where the dome meets the ground. (Fortunately, some dome homes are built so that the vertical curvature doesn't begin at that point. In such cases, they look more like domes placed atop cylinders rather than pure domes.)

The numbers are somewhat deceiving when you read about how many square feet a dome home offers. A 2,000 square foot dome home typically has less usable interior space than a 2,000 square foot home which is square or rectangular, due to all of those unusable wedge shapes.

There's also the matter of how big a lot needs to be in order to accommodate a dome home, versus the lot size needed for a more traditional home offering a comparable number of square feet. By definition, a dome home with a 50 foot diameter is going to offer a lot less interior space than a square building measuring 50 feet long by 50 feet wide. You aren't going to get 2,500 square feet of interior space from a dome home with a 50 foot diameter. Yet, the dome home with the 50 foot diameter will require a plot of land as big as the plot of land required by the 50x50 traditional home. In other words, dome homes generally require larger lots than square or rectangular homes offering the same amount of interior space.

Fortunately, Kansas and Oklahoma are states where large lots aren't difficult to come by. Wide open space does have its advantages, even if it makes for a rather monotonous landscape when one is driving through the state. And what's the point of building an energy efficient home with tons of storage space, if the construction method makes the building so vulnerable to tornadoes that you can't rely on the building to protect you or your possessions? Dome homes might not make sense everywhere, but they definitely make sense in tornado territory, if they can substantially reduce vulnerability to tornado damage.

One of the most interesting aspects of the domes offered by Monolithic domes is that one has the option of building one's home completely underground, using a series of interconnected domes. It seems to me that it would be hard for a tornado to do significant damage to a home which was completely underground.

Another innovative approach to construction techniques designed to resist the force of tornadoes and hurricanes is being taken by a company known as Crete-Tech. The company builds houses which look more like conventional homes, but they use building materials such as SecureCrete and RhinoBlock in order to substantially reduce the likelihood of a home falling apart in such an extreme storm.

I also read an article recently about special nails which were designed not to rip out in the event of a hurricane or tornado, when subjected to the types of stress typical of such events. Searching online just now, I discovered that Bostitch HurriQuake nails are up to 2x as resistant to high winds, and they're rated for hurricane wind conditions and gusts up to 170 mph. They're also up to 50% more resistant to earthquake forces. To say that such nails offer total protection would probably be deceptive, but anything that can reduce the damage to homes in areas prone to tornadoes and earthquakes and hurricanes is worth a look.

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