Disaster Recovery

4 Matters Hurricane Teaches You About Superior Design

As I type this, Hurricane Sandy is currently making its way around the shore of New Jersey, over a hundred kilometers south of New York City, where I reside with my spouse and daughter. We’re at a two-unit, brick apartment building in northwest Queens, tucked between neighboring houses of comparable size and construction. Since only two of the four sides of the home (three of five when we count the roof) are vulnerable to the elements, this situation makes us feel protected and protected.

Our (false?) Sense of security is tempered by an adventure in 2011 when we spent a week dog and home sitting at a yearlong home just north of the city, a week that happened to coincide with Hurricane Irene. The home, designed by a renowned architect, was exposed to the elements on all sides and bombarded by wind, rain and even tree limbs. It lived pretty much unscathed, but the power went out at the middle of night, in the peak of the storm, and didn’t return on until five days later, in the end of our duties.

So the four of us (my wife, daughter and I, and our friend’s dog) spent five days without power at a home that was created so well that the experience was actually a pleasant one (minus, of course, the hassle of emptying and cleaning the refrigerator), aided by some gorgeous weather after the storm. This ideabook goes in to our expertise, but it mostly discusses the lessons I learned from those five days. An individual can prepare for the worst when a hurricane procedures (Sandy has made us do that), but when the power goes out, a house’s design is equally as vital as provisions. The photos that illustrate this ideabook were shot before and following Irene, showing views from the home and its aftermath in the region; some of their home are minor details, to guard the privacy of their owners.

Related: Things to do After a Hurricane or Flood

John Hill

Among the most impressive aspects of the home was what it seemed at. It’s easy to see why a frame wasn’t used in this corner window : the skies opened through the trees toward the east. Every day people were in the home (two weeks before the storm, five days after), the sun rose in this spot within the trees. Around the rest of the home the trees were shut, embracing us.

What was disconcerting about this view is that the clouds would be moving off from the home (as in this photograph, a couple days ahead of the storm), but throughout Irene — awarded its counterclockwise rotation — that the weather transferred toward us. Therefore we could see not only the clouds coming our way but also the lightning, among the scariest aspects of the storm.

John Hill

Another reason the view in the prior picture is essential for this story is since it was our view all throughout the night when Irene hit. The view through the corner window was from a living space adjacent to the formal living area; both shared an impressive rock hearth, or so the owner recommended those rooms for security within the bedrooms down the hall.

Our experience at sleeping at the family room has been a tug between two opposites: the strength and solidity of the rock and the willingness and approaching view through the glass. Without curtains to the walls, our perspective of the storm, and the lighting up of the space through the lightning, was a constant. Water splashed upon the glass such as waves on the sea, and the roof creaked above us, but we were secure throughout the night, even though our minds had a hard time thinking that was the case.

John Hill

I took very few pictures throughout the storm, partially because it hit strongest throughout the nighttime, but mainly because I was in no mood to take any. New York City may have laughed off what happened with Irene, but at our place it was a scary affair. These photos show the comparative amounts of rainfall being shed from the roof: the photograph on the left was shot at about 2:30 p.m., before Irene hit; the photograph on the left was shot at about 8 hours daily afterwards. During the storm that the rain was in a 45-degree angle, due to the wind blowing from right to left.

Note the leaves in the foreground on the left border of the morning-after photo. Those belong to some large tree limb that fell on the roof. Luckily, the felled limb didn’t puncture the roofing, because that would have meant that some of the rain would have worked its way indoors.

John Hill

A day and a half after Irene hit, the weather turned for the better. Here is the sunrise which awakened us slept in the living space. After a day of rain, the second day following the storm was the start of our appreciation of the home, articulated here as four lessons.

1. Design with sunlight. The orientation of the home, and its corresponding layout through materials, has been apparent. The glass and stone dichotomy of the family room actually extends to the entire house: Stone anchors the home on the west, and glass opens it up on the east. This welcomes sunlight in the morning, however much of it is light filtered through the several trees; this was especially significant when we had been there, as it was August and we didn’t want too much sun entering the home.

We returned to the home in December, when the trees were bare, and sunlight had the effect of heating the home superbly, especially by heating up the concrete flooring and letting its heat to dissipate when the sun disappeared. (We learned this the hard way, as the power went out once more, but only for a day.)

John Hill

2. Design with the wind. Even though the leaves filtered the August sunlight when we had been there, the 80-degree weather necessitated some cooling. With the power out, this supposed natural cooling — breezes. Here the home excelled. The glass walls facing east all opened, with glass doors on the outside and matching screen doors on the inside. With doors open on the east and windows open on the west, breezes made their way easily through the home. The humidity was not as large as before the storm, but nevertheless the cooling effects were considerable and noticeable.

This photograph shows one particular reason that the power was out for us and many members of the region. The wind knocked down lots of trees, many of them landing on power lines.

John Hill

3. Design with the land. Among those trees on the east side outside the home was a victim of the storm, visible here. (For a sense of scale, notice the dog walking around the base of the tree.) The home is on the right, atop the slope and past the picture’s frame. This meant the tree dropped off from the home, only one way in which the structure of the home works with the landscape.

As mentioned, the home is open on part of the east side to welcome sunlight, but on the north side, trees assist prevent cool breezes. On the west side the rock walls are partially bermed from the ground to aid in cooling and heating, and also an opening at the trees on the south side brings sunlight to the indoor-outdoor dining area.

John Hill

4. Live with sunlight, wind and soil. But design is only half the story; the rest is in fact living with the home. My appreciation of the architect’s design came about since we embraced the sun when it shone (from the extreme, waking at sunrise and going to bed just after sunset; in other times just sitting by the window read), controlled the breezes through opening and closing windows and doors, and got out of the home to enjoy the spaces around the house when we could.

These lessons are hardly comprehensive and aren’t meant as tips for designing a passive home, for instance. They just serve to illustrate some of what living in a well-designed home after a major storm instructed me — or retaught me, to be accurate.

Ultimately it is helpful to find a home as having a mutual relationship with us : We affect a home when living inside, and in turn it affects us. Therefore it is important to look at a house’s design apart from the infrastructure and gizmos it supports, not as a doomsday scenario but as a call for greater responses to natural problems.

One way to judge a house’s success would be to ask, “Can your home be comfortable without power for five days?” I understand this Frank Lloyd Wright home was.

More: 11 Ways to Hurricane Proof Your House

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