To Combat Climate Change, Builders Create Greener—and Tougher—Homes

By incorporating sustainability and resilience into home construction, developers are addressing both a cause of climate change—carbon emissions—and one of its effects—stronger storms.

Source: WSJ | Published on December 1, 2023

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William Fulford’s home in a new development here didn’t lose power when Hurricane Idalia struck Florida’s Gulf Coast in August, leading to many outages in the area. It also escaped with no damage or water intrusion.

The trick to its survival: The $1.3 million home built last year to be energy efficient is also great at withstanding major storms.

“We woke up the next morning just like normal,” said Fulford, 76 years old, who moved into the home last year with his wife, Sueann Colombo. “It’s a damn strong house.”

The three-story home’s ground floor is a garage with flood vents to accommodate rising water. The living space that starts on the second floor is about 16 feet above sea level. Metal strapping ties the entire structure, from roof to foundation, together as one snug unit that can withstand powerful winds. Solar panels and a battery system keep the power on even if the surrounding grid experiences outages.

The development known as Hunters Point, with prices now ranging from about $1.4 million to $1.8 million, is one of a growing number that combines the energy efficiency of green building design and the resilience of hurricane-resistant construction. They often come at a premium to what a typical house in this region would cost: about $88,000 more, according to an estimate by Marshall Gobuty, chief executive of developer Pearl Homes. But homeowners can usually count on home-insurance discounts for resilient features.

Hunters Point is billed by its developers as the first “net zero” single-family home development in the U.S., a designation that means the homes generate at least as much energy as they consume. And they are built to standards that often exceed the already rigorous Florida building code.

By incorporating sustainability and resilience into home construction, developers are addressing both a cause of climate change—carbon emissions—and one of its effects—stronger storms. As more builders take that approach, some are aiming to produce residences at a scale that can make them affordable to a wider array of buyers.

The moves are part of a push by businesses and governments to invest in technologies that reduce emissions and adapt vulnerable communities to higher temperatures and rising sea levels. Last year’s Inflation Reduction Act, a law written by Democrats in Congress, introduced rebates for consumers who install more-efficient appliances in their homes, accelerating a race among companies to develop better air conditioners, heat pumps and stoves. Utilities are burying power lines underground to shield them from the elements, while coastal cities are guarding against flooding by building tidal gates and pump stations.

At Hunters Point, an 86-unit development south of Tampa, homes are anchored by a concrete slab and blocks at the base. Wider-than-normal wall framing allows for extra foam insulation that helps seal and strengthen homes. Water-resistant membranes on patio decks protect against water incursion.

Solar panels are fastened tightly to metal roofs to keep them from flying off in a hurricane. They convert homes, which come with state-of-the-art batteries, into mini power plants that produce more electricity than they need, with the excess sold back to the local utility.

When Gene and Tammy Tener were looking to build a new home on waterfront property they owned in Crystal River, Fla., north of Tampa, they wanted one that was energy efficient and sturdy in the face of storms. After doing research, they found a builder, Deltec Homes, that fit the bill.

The Asheville, N.C.-based company’s homes have a signature design: a round structure that provides panoramic views, but also aerodynamics that reduce the pressure of strong winds on its surface. When Deltec launched more than 50 years ago, the shape was aimed more at providing an experience. But once company leaders saw how well it performed in storms, they focused on improving that aspect even more. Now the roof’s pitch reduces lift, and a steel collar at its center provides added support. Plywood sheathing is stronger than that used in conventional homes.

In the last 30 years, only one of the roughly 1,400 homes the company has built, many in the southeast, has had structural damage from hurricane-force winds, said Steve Linton, Deltec’s president. Interest in hurricane-resistant homes has surged among consumers, as measured by inquiries to the company website, he said.

When Hurricane Idalia hit the coast north of Crystal River, a storm surge sent about a foot of water into the Teners’ first-floor garage, which was designed with flood vents and breakaway walls for just such events, said Gene Tener, 65. The structure of the house—which cost about $750,000 to build—had no damage, and the garage was fine after getting pressure washed, he said. Meanwhile, some of his neighbors’ homes took on several feet of water in living spaces.

In southwestern Florida, near Fort Myers, the rapidly growing development of Babcock Ranch sits on 18,000 acres surrounded by nature preserves. Promoted by its developers as the U.S.’s first solar-powered town, it draws electricity from an 870-acre solar farm and battery storage facility. High-tension power lines that deliver electricity to the town can withstand Category 5 hurricane winds, and inside the development, distribution lines are underground.

The community—which opened in 2018 and is slated to grow eventually to about 20,000 homes, with prices ranging from the low $300,000s to more than $4 million—was laid out in a way that preserves natural water flows to mitigate flooding risks, said Syd Kitson, Babcock Ranch’s developer. A storm-water management system allows administrators to lower lake levels ahead of storms and pump water to nearby wetlands that can store it.

While developers have long emphasized Babcock Ranch’s sustainable features, its resilient ones have gained attention in recent years. During 2022’s Hurricane Ian, which devastated the Fort Myers area, homes in Babcock Ranch suffered minimal damage and never lost power, Kitson said.

Vantem, a manufacturer of energy-efficient, storm-resilient modular homes that has operated in various Latin American countries, is preparing to expand its operations in the U.S. Some of the company’s homes, which rely on strong insulated panels, in the Bahamas survived Hurricane Dorian in 2019 without experiencing significant damage, said Vantem CEO Chris Anderson. Given the modular approach, a 1,500-square-foot home will sell for less than $150,000.