By: Carole McMichael
Each Storm Safe Home in The Oaks at Summer Glen community includes a concrete block safe room with a 200-pound steel door.
For the last few decades, Mother Nature’s fury has threatened to bring the home insurance industry in Florida to its knees, but the Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS), an insurance-funded organization, has taken a proactive approach to the problem. They established a program called “Fortified … for safer living,” researching and creating a set of guidelines on building stronger and safer housing.
The concept of using special techniques and materials to make a house safer is not new, but most of the upgrades require high-end, custom budgets—leaving out the majority of buyers. Florida and other areas in the hurricane belt need developers with a vision and a passion for building affordable housing that can stand up to devastating high winds. Kristin Beall, vice president and contractor for Charlie Johnson Builder in Mount Dora, Florida, is just that kind of developer.
Safe and affordable
After seeing how vulnerable houses are to hurricanes and tornados, it became very clear to Beall that there had to be a better way to build. She noted that it is easy to build a home that costs over a million dollars with a lot of safety features because the builder has the freedom to spend extra money on safer products and upgraded engineering.
“My grandfather started his company with the focus of affordable housing,” Beall says. “I decided I would find a way to build affordable homes that were also strong and secure, that exceeded the local codes and came with all the features that you normally see in large homes, but still were within the reach of working families.”
To do this, Beall created a line for Charlie Johnson Builder called Storm Safe Homes. Beall’s concept is to build an entire community of storm safe homes. This community of 57 homes, called The Oaks at Summer Glen, is going to be America’s first community in which every home is built to IBHS’s Fortified standards.
“We focus on the envelope of the home,” Beall says. “We put our money and energy into a really strong envelope—strong roof, strong walls, strong windows. We don’t put it in high-end lighting fixtures, granite countertops or crown molding. Those are things the buyers can upgrade later. But you can’t go back and upgrade your walls or your roof. Those are fixed for the life of your home. Our focus is on building safer, like putting in a safe room—something that can’t be added once it is built. It doesn’t matter how nice your faucets are if your home isn’t safe.”
The Oaks at Summer Glen houses range in size from about 1,300 to about 2,000 square feet. They come standard with concrete block walls reinforced with steel rebar and are finished on the outside with stucco and stone architectural highlights. The houses have an upgraded roof system, a 4-inch concrete poured ceiling for the safe room, storm shutters, and exterior paint that seals hairline cracks in stucco, preventing water intrusion. The ridge vents are engineered for 150-mph winds. Windows and the garage door are engineered for 140-mph winds, and the paint warranties for 100-mph winds. Every phase of construction has been analyzed and upgraded with safety and security in mind.
The one-story homes, which are set up for working families, will have three bedrooms and two baths with a two-car garage. “We try to make every space dual-purpose,” Beall says. “The master bedroom is a self-contained room. It has a morning kitchen with a computer desk positioned right next to the safe room, which is ventilated and has outlets and a land-line telephone in it. It is also pre-wired to a generator in case of power loss in a storm. It has a 200-pound steel door with five bolts rated for 250-mph winds. Safe room size varies, but 8 feet by 10 feet is the most common.”
According to Beall, the homes start at $220,000, including impact fees, landscaping, and irrigation. “We are totally custom builders,” Beall says, “but because of the Storm Safe features, buyers cannot change the envelope of the house. There are nine different floor plans, but if buyers want to move walls, expand the porch, we have draftsmen on staff for that. If they want an upgrade for interior items, they can, but we want to keep these houses at an affordable price. Still, they will feel like the home is customized.”
Building for safety
Storm Safe Homes are engineered to exceed local building codes for wind load, making the choice of materials and methods of installation key to improved construction. The majority of the houses have a hip-roof design with two decorative gables typical of the Craftsman style that Beall follows: one in front of the garage and one over the guest bedroom. Instead of building the gable ends out of wood, as is traditional, they build them out of concrete block and reinforce them with rebar. In wind load testing, researchers found that the gable ends are most susceptible to collapse during high winds—the concrete block makes them much stronger.
The high-impact windows Beall uses are engineered to take 140-mph wind loads, exceeding the 110-mph wind load expected in the community’s wind zone. In addition, they come standard with ballistic nylon shutters (made from the same material as flak jackets). They are pre-drilled and pre-sized, ready to be hung at a moment’s notice. The lightweight shutters are reinforced with PVC and won’t rust or warp, and they fold up into a box. Beall was looking for shutters a woman home alone or an older couple could handle—owners don’t even need a tool to hang them.
The roof uses trusses with a 130-mph rating. Over that, the homes have 5/8-inch plywood decking installed with a nailing pattern of 4 inches and 6 inches on center. (Six and 8 inches is the minimum requirement.) Over the decking goes a peel-and-stick water barrier, which is topped with 130-mph impact-resistant, 40-year architectural shingles.
One safety feature that has been around long enough to be required by code is the hurricane strap. In the top course of masonry block, the concrete lintel is poured. The straps are placed in the wet concrete. When dry, a truss is placed at each strap, which wraps around the wood and is nailed to it. It becomes the anchor that connects the roof system to the body of the house.
All of the doors swing out to help prevent water and wind infiltration. “There are a lot of things that don’t cost anything that are just good standard practices that make a home safer,” Beall says.
Although all the safety techniques and materials need to work together for the final result, concrete is the cornerstone feature. Beall’s family has been building with concrete for 50 years. They are strong believers in, and advocates of, concrete construction—especially in Florida’s moist climate where you have to battle termites, mold, mildew, and rot, as well as weather. “We found that concrete is a superior product,” Beall says.
For The Oaks homes, they use a standard 8-inch block and run a 3/4-inch foam core insulation on the inside of the block. This step is followed by the furring strips, and then the drywall. The builder could meet code by doing down-pours around either side of window and door openings, as well as every 8 to 12 feet in a flat wall; instead, they exceed code by following the Fortified guidelines, which require the down-pours every 4 feet. This increases the amount of concrete in each home.
“The design phase took quite a while,” Beall says, “as did the initial estimating because we were looking for the highest quality for the best price. We build them as they sell. Each home will take about six to eight months to complete, depending on how many storms we have. The soil at The Oaks is like beach sand (very fine) so it perks well and is good for building.
The project has between 20 and 40 houses in various stages of construction all the time. A lot of the companies Beall works with have multiple crews that they can call on to keep on schedule.
The biggest challenge in the project, according to Beall, has not been building the homes, but finding products that were both affordable and able to meet the requirements for safe housing.
Spreading the word
The Storm Safe Homes community in Eustis, Florida, has gotten a lot of national media attention, which couldn’t please Beall more. She is passionate about building better and safer homes, and getting the word out to as many people as possible.
“I think we need to educate not only the builders, but also the homebuyers so they will ask for concrete homes,” Beall says. “When you look at the benefits and energy efficiency of concrete, there really isn’t any competition. It also is going to take educating our subcontractors because that is where the expense is on the builders’ part. It’s not just the block and masons.
“There is a picture taken after a tornado hit a very rural area, showing all the trees lying down like sticks. And there, sitting in the middle of this devastation, is one white concrete block home. It just proves how strong concrete block really is. Hopefully, in my lifetime, I will see contractors across the country building out of concrete.”
For more information, visit homesbyher.com.