How to Fortify Buildings Against Climate Change

Wes O'Donnell
13 min readApr 26, 2024

This is part two of a two-part series on smart prepping for regular people. You can read part one here.

On May 20, 2013, I was hunkered down in my primary bedroom closet with my kids in Oklahoma City while an EF5 tornado was ravaging Moore, Oklahoma.

This monster of a tornado came within a half-mile of my house before dissipating, but even at that distance, I felt its primal, destructive power — mainly through vibrations in the walls and the roaring sound that I can only describe as standing under Niagara Falls.

I’ve done some crazy stuff in the military, but this was one of the few times in my life when I actually believed I was going to die. When we surveyed the damage afterward, we noticed telephone poles that had been thrown horizontally through brick houses and cars.

In that particular event, peak winds hit 210 miles per hour. In the months that followed, we decided to move to Michigan and leave ‘Tornado Alley’ behind.

Author’s collection. Moore, Oklahoma 2013

I recently had the good fortune of interviewing longtime reader, friend, and architect, Craig Applegath on how he designs buildings for a future filled with uncertainty.

One need not imagine a future with increasingly severe weather events brought on by a quickly changing climate — it’s already here.

So how are architects and urban planners preparing?

The widespread displacement of millions of people will likely occur in the coming decades. These so-called “climate refugees,” people who are forced to leave their homes due to climate-related events, such as storms or flooding, will migrate to places that may not have the infrastructure to support them.

In this fascinating discussion, Craig answers my questions with the insights and relevance of someone who has been thinking deeply about this topic for some time.

It’s worth noting that, aside from government buildings, commercial architecture hasn’t really been forced to confront building design that protects from severe weather events and potential intruders.

Read on to find out how one architect is preparing for a new normal where destructive events are the rule, not the exception.

Wes O’Donnell: Craig, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me about this important topic.

Craig Applegath: My pleasure Wes, happy to chat.

Wes: When beginning a new construction project with the goal of climate resilience, what are the primary factors you consider in the initial design phase?

Craig: Wes, in the past I have typically not considered “home defense” as a design criterion when designing buildings. Earlier in my career, I designed homes but then shifted to designing larger institutional buildings — primarily healthcare facilities and higher education facilities.

Neither of these institutional building types has, in the past, been concerned with “defense” so this is an entirely new game we are talking about (at least in Canada).

Recently I have become more involved in developing designs for multi-unit residential buildings and have been developing a prototype for a multi-generational co-living community. I am also now looking at developing a prototype for a 6 to 10-story multi-unit housing building that is designed to be adapted to the emerging impacts of climate change.

So, in answer to your question, the primary potential climate impacts I consider in the initial design stage concerning climate adaptation (but not necessarily security) are as follows:

a. Severe Heat Events — over 31C with 100% humidity

b. Severe Wind Events — over 100 mph winds

c. Severe Rain Events — rainfall that will cause 2 to 3 inches of water

d. Severe combined Wind and Rain Events — severe rain driven by high winds typical of hurricane or typhoon storms

e. Fire and Smoke events

f. Severe Snow and Ice storm events

g. Sea Level Rise where the site is near an ocean coast.

h. Knock-on events related to the above — including disruptions and failures of the power, water, or gas grid. Also, transportation systems being impaired.

Note that all of the above may be combined to produce unpredictable results.

Wes: How do these considerations influence the choice of location, materials, and structural design?

Craig: For location, all of the above considerations will be significantly influenced and, in some cases, wholly determined by location (for example sea level rise or heat events). A building’s geographic location, its latitude and longitude, will have a great deal to do with the probability of these various climate impacts occurring including their frequency and intensity.

The choice of materials will be very important in designing for an effective adaptation to escalating climate impacts. For example, in locations where severe wind or rain events will be an issue, the choice of building materials and how they are combined with other materials will be very consequential.

High winds not only create lateral forces on a building that must be withstood by the building walls and roof but the walls and roof transfer these loads to the building structure itself.

Also, high-speed winds tend to create and pick up debris that then becomes projectiles moving at the speed of the winds which may range from 100 to 200 miles per hour in severe windstorms. So, building materials must be able to withstand the force of not only the wind itself but also the dynamic loading of the high-speed projectile debris.

Wes: During the EF5 tornado in Oklahoma, we were lucky that we only lost our roof. For some homes that I captured on camera in the immediate aftermath, the debris damage looked like someone had fired artillery at these homes.

Author’s collection. Moore, Oklahoma 2013

Craig: Incredible. When you add rain to the equation, you not only have the challenge of the force of wind on the cladding and the structure but also the challenge of the walls and roof having to withstand the rain being driven at them at high speed and pressure.

For severe heat events, materials will play a critical role in providing the ability for the building to adapt. Buildings that are effectively insulated will be able to keep their occupants cooler where there is air conditioning and should air conditioning fail, buildings that are constructed out of solid brick masonry or concrete will potentially act as a thermal flywheel to buffer the spike in heat. (This in itself could be a whole article!)

And of course, materials are very important to mitigating the risk of fires that are near the building. Flameproof or resistant materials for walls and roofs are key for this.

On your last point about structural design, the design is probably one of the least complicated aspects of building for climate adaptation, but there are some key considerations.

Obviously, structures must be designed for the potentially increasing wind loads in regions where severe windstorms are predicted to increase. This includes not only lateral loads on the walls and roof from the winds hitting the side of a building but also the effect of uplift as the winds pass over the roof and cause the roof to act like a wing and lift off the building.

In this case, proper tie-down anchors must be installed during the construction of the roof.

Wes: In the face of increasing climate-related events such as floods, wildfires, and hurricanes, what are the key architectural features and materials you recommend to ensure a home remains resilient?

Craig: Well, if you are considering building in Florida (which is probably not a very good idea in the future!) the probability of severe hurricane storms is increasing both in frequency and intensity of the storms.

Wes: Ugh, I’m going to Disney World this October and I’m already worried about hurricanes!

Craig: Get that travel insurance! Also, large swaths of Florida are very low in elevation and will be very susceptible to sea-level rise and ever more frequent periodic flooding as a result of storm surges. Longer term, much of Florida’s landmass will be inundated by sea level rise. Your readers may be interested in the book that we use in the seminar I co-teach, the Sea Level Rise Adaptation seminar at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture at the University of Toronto.

The book, The Water Will Come — Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World by Jeff Goodell, should be a wake-up call for anyone living on the East or West Coasts of North America!

So, some of the things to consider for adaptation include designing your cladding and building structure to be able to withstand the kind of wind forces produced by the strongest hurricanes. The problem now is that these forces are going up, so the ability to withstand these forces requires buildings to be built like concrete bunkers.

The other challenge is storm surge and/or overland flooding. So, to deal with this challenge you will want to be looking at getting your building off the ground by a height that you can be sure that the flooding will not reach the first floor or, alternatively, ensure that the ground floor can be flooded without causing any harm to the building and its systems.

Wes: What about the widespread increase in wildfires?

Craig: Fire typically refers to the danger of the proximity of forest fires and the resulting smoke produced. The fires are dangerous at a range where the heat radiation can cause the ignition of fires in nearby buildings.

Buildings can also be susceptible to fire by airborne live embers landing on building roofs or in flammable vegetation near the building.

You can more effectively protect your building from airborne embers by having roofs and cladding that are not flammable, as well as having roof-mounted irrigation systems that can help reduce the effect of live embers landing on a roof.

Roof materials that will help prevent fire ignition include metal roofing of a sufficient gauge and slate or clay tile roofing. There are also some asphalt shingles designed to be resistant to ignition by burning embers.

Fire needs to be relatively close to buildings to be dangerous.

Smoke, on the other hand, can have serious health impacts hundreds of miles away from the fire, being borne by the prevailing winds. Just ask the residents of New York City about the smoke that came from fires in more northern regions of Canada. Although thousands of miles away from the fire itself, wind carried smoke of a high enough particulate density to cause raspatory difficulties for significant numbers of New Yorkers.

Depending on the density of the smoke particles in the air, smoke can be a mild irritant or a very dangerous health risk. For building occupants, air quality can be improved by using either HEPA or electrostatic air filters. Again, this could be an article in itself!

Wes: Let’s talk about technology integration. How do you integrate modern technologies into the design of homes that are both climate-resilient and secure?

Craig: Wes, I’m actually trying to figure this one out right now. You see, the big challenge I see with home security systems is that they primarily rely on being integrated into the internet by Wi-Fi.

The problem with this is that, in normal circumstances, when society is running comfortably along the tracks, security is all about dealing with a few bad actors trying to break into a home or building — and then the security system alerting the security company or police.

But if we are talking about a future scenario when the grid goes down, and the internet is compromised, security systems are really not worth much.

So, I’m starting to think that security systems need to be thought of in terms of what can you do to secure your building or home where there is no internet, no phone, and no electricity (from the grid).

I think this comes down to good physical security. Being able to secure your building with doors and windows that make entry virtually impossible for intruders — outside of them having a hydraulic battering ram or an RPG!

So, this would include using metal louvers and grills over windows — which also by the way are good for protecting the windows against larger wind-borne debris in windstorms — and solid wood and steel doors.

Walls made of solid brick masonry, concrete blocks, or cast-in-place concrete will also increase building security.

Walls constructed with wood framing (2x4 or 2x6 construction) are easily broken down with a sledgehammer and a chainsaw.

Roofs are always a potential weak link. Pitched roofs in most homes are constructed out of wood rafters or trusses with plywood sheathing under the asphalt shingles, which are easily penetrated with the use of a standard-issue chainsaw.

Flat roofs are often made with lightweight steel decking that can also be opened with a chainsaw. So flat or pitched roofs need to be made out of more impermeable materials like concrete.

Wes: Are there any innovative technologies or systems that have significantly changed the way you approach these projects?

Craig: Most of the technologies and systems that will be deployed in the service of climate change adaptation are already existing but may be used in new ways.

In some cases, I think, older technologies may be revived because of their new relevance to adaptation. A good example of this is load-bearing masonry wall construction. For the most part, our contemporary buildings have abandoned load-bearing masonry construction — that is, walls that are comprised of multiple wythes of bricks, or bricks and blocks.

Most contemporary commercial and institutional buildings have some combination of glass curtain walls in combination with structural steel studs with sheathing, membrane, and exterior insulation board, and then an external single layer of brick or metal panel wall cladding, all supported by the metal studs.

These walls work just fine for conditions where extreme winds and storms are not the norm, but going forward they will not be very resilient to the forces applied to them by escalating climate impacts.

However, exterior load-bearing walls constructed with multiple wythes of bricks that then support the insulation and exterior cladding will be much more durable in the face of climate change impacts. And, a very important additional quality that these solid masonry walls will provide is that they will act as thermal flywheels helping to buffer the heat of extreme heat events.

Wes: It almost sounds like a return to the days of castle construction. Or at least, 19th Century building techniques.

Craig: Well, one new approach that my firm, DIALOG, is developing is the R.E.A.C.H. Protocol.

This is a methodology for implementing climate adaptation strategies for a community’s environment — its site and buildings — as well as a facilitation tool for built-environment professionals such as Planners, Architects, Engineers, Landscape Architects, etc.

I believe that adaptation is an opportunity for positive change, and I think that the ability to create impact is amplified when the whole problem is embraced, in a holistic manner.

That’s why we created the R.E.A.C.H. Protocol as a methodology for better understanding the impacts climate change will have on individuals, organizations, and communities — and developing effective strategies for adapting to those impacts.

Wes: Looking forward, what do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities in designing homes that are both resistant to climate change and secure?

Craig: As for challenges:

i. Deteriorating power grids;

ii. Rising costs of property and infrastructure damage, while at the same time the withdrawal of international re-insurers from insuring anything that will be significantly impacted by climate change impacts, (like is now happening in California and Florida).

iii. The increasing polarization of politics and the decreasing ability of governments at all levels to take action to help their communities adapt to climate change impacts (let alone reduce carbon emissions causing climate change).

iv. The potential for social dislocation and unrest as national and international populations must leave cities and towns that are no longer habitable because of sea level rise, severe heat and drought, and forest fires.

v. Challenges to the food production systems around the world as large swaths of currently arable land become too hot or too dry to produce food.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are big opportunities as well:

vi. Electrical Smart Grids: While our economies are now relatively robust, we have the opportunity to invest in more resilient smart electrical grids that will allow us to produce power and allow us to use zero-carbon power produced by solar PV or wind power — in addition to the current generation by hydro, nuclear and gas. The key here is the robustness and hopefully redundancy of the grid to ensure that climate impacts in one area will not disrupt the grids in other locations.

vii. Building design construction that anticipates the future impacts.

viii. Bi-partisan development of climate adaptation strategies (this may be the hardest one!)

Wes: Okay, so how do you plan to address these challenges in your future projects?

Craig: As mentioned earlier, we plan to use the R.E.A.C.H. Protocol to assist our clients in planning for future adaptation strategies. In fact, we are now developing a mid-rise multi-unit residential building prototype that incorporates many of the strategies that I have talked about above including:

· Solid load-bearing masonry wall construction to act as a thermal flywheel and provide a robust physical barrier to severe storm events.

· Secured windows with protective louvers and projectile-resistant glass

· Securable courtyards

· Single-loaded corridors so that units can have cross-ventilation

· Maximum building height of eight to ten floors so that the municipal water main pressure does not need to be assisted with electric pumps to reach the top floor — so residents will still have water even without electrical power.

· Solar PV Power for key power requirements including security, emergency lighting, and refrigeration.

· Food production in the interior courtyard of a community garden

· Water reserves for the supply of a week’s water supply for the complex

Wes: Craig, this has been an amazing discussion. Climate change will cause increasingly disruptive events as we move deeper into the 21st century. It’s somewhat heartening that people like yourself are already thinking about how to mitigate some of the adverse effects.

And I can’t help but feel a tremendous sense of loss at the fact that we have, as a species, already passed the point of no return.

I’m not giving up on climate action, but it feels like we’re now in the realm of adaptation and mitigation.

Craig, thanks for helping me bring this topic to my readers.

Craig: Of course, Wes. It was a pleasure! I’m a big fan of your Medium articles!

In the third and final part of this three-part series, I’ll look at how to defend your personal home and protect your loved ones against potential civil unrest brought about by climate change.

Learn more about Craig Applegath or DIALOG

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Wes O'Donnell

US Army & US Air Force Veteran | Global Security Writer | Intel Forecaster | Law Student | TEDx Speaker | Pro Democracy | Pro Human | Hates Authoritarians