Developers are building sustainable, hurricane-resistant homes in the wake of extreme weather conditions and climate change
When Hurricane Michael struck the Florida Panhandle five years ago, it left boats, cars and trucks piled up against the windows of Bonnie Paulson’s home in the small coastal community of Mexico Beach, Florida, even though the house rests on columns 14 feet above the ground. . But Paulson’s house, with its round, ship-like shape, ignored Category 5 winds that could have caused it to collapse.
“I wasn’t nervous at all,” Paulson said, recalling the evacuation warning. Her house was missing only a few shingles, and photos taken after the storm showed it standing complete amid the ruins of almost all the surrounding homes.
Some developers are building homes like Paulson’s with the goal of making them more resilient to the extreme weather that is increasing with climate change, and more environmentally friendly at the same time. Solar panels, for example, installed so snugly that high winds can’t get underneath them, mean clean energy that can withstand storms. Preserved wetlands and native plants sequester carbon in the ground and reduce vulnerability to flooding as well. Recycled or advanced building materials that reduce energy use as well as the need to make new materials.
A person’s home is one of the biggest ways in which an individual’s carbon footprint can be reduced. Buildings emit about 38% of total energy-related greenhouse gas emissions each year. Some carbon pollution comes from operating things like lights and air conditioners, and some comes from making building materials, such as concrete and steel.
Deltec, the company that built the Paulson home, says only one of the nearly 1,400 homes built over the past three decades sustained structural damage from hurricane-force winds. But the company is equally focused on green construction, with high-quality insulation that reduces the need for air conditioning, heat pumps to increase heating and cooling efficiency, energy-efficient appliances, and of course, solar power.
“The real magic here is that we do both,” says CEO Steve Linton. “I think a lot of times resilience is kind of an afterthought when you talk about sustainable construction, where it’s just a feature on the menu…We believe resilience is really a key part of sustainability.”
Other companies are developing entire neighborhoods that are hurricane-resistant and contribute less than average to climate change.
Pearl Homes’ Hunters Point community in Cortez, Florida, consists of 26 completed homes and 30 homes to be built by the end of 2024, all of which are LEED Platinum certified, the highest level of one of the most widely used green building rating systems.
To reduce exposure to flooding, home sites were raised 16 feet (4.8 m) above code. Roads have also been raised, designed to channel accumulated rainfall away and onto the ground where it can be absorbed. Welded steel roofs allow solar panels to be attached so closely that high winds can’t get under them, and the homes have batteries that keep them running when the power goes out.
Marshall Gobuti, CEO of Pearl Homes, said his team approached the University of Central Florida with a plan to build a community that doesn’t contribute to climate change. “I wanted it to be not only sustainable, but also resilient, and I wanted it to be very different from everything else going on in Florida,” Gobuti said. “I see newly built houses, half a mile away, and they are under water… We are in a crisis with how the weather is changing.”
This resonates with Paulson, in Mexico Beach, who said she doesn’t want to “live day in and day out worrying about tracking something in the Atlantic Ocean.” Along with greater peace of mind, she says, she now enjoys energy costs of about $32 a month, much less than the roughly $250 she said she paid in a previous home.
“I don’t really feel that residents are taking into account environmental disasters and adapting to them,” she said. “We’re building the same old stuff that fell apart.”
Babcock Ranch is a sustainable, hurricane-resistant community in South Florida. It calls itself the first solar-powered city in the United States, generating 150 megawatts of electricity using 680,000 panels on 870 acres (350 hectares). The community was also one of the first in the country to have large batteries on site to store additional solar energy for use at night or when the power goes out.
Sid Kitson founded Babcock Ranch in 2006. The homes are better able to withstand hurricane winds because the roofs are attached to a system that connects to the foundation. Power lines are buried underground so they don’t explode. The doors swing outward in some homes, so when pressure from the wind builds, they don’t open, and vents help balance the pressure in garages.
In 2022, Hurricane Ian struck Babcock Ranch as a Category 4 storm. Kitson said it left little damage.
“We set out to prove that a new city and environment can work hand in hand, and I think we’ve proven that,” Kitson said. “Unless you build in a very flexible way, you will constantly be repairing or tearing down the house.”
The project sold about 73,000 acres (29,500 hectares) of its site to the state for wetland preservation, and on the land on which it was built, the team studied how water naturally flows through the local environment and incorporated it into its water management system.
“This water is going to go where it wants, and if you’re going to try to defy Mother Nature, you’re going to lose every time,” Kitson said. Wetlands, retention ponds and native plants are better able to manage water during heavy rainfall, reducing the risk of home flooding.
In the Florida Keys, Natalia Padalino and her husband, Alan Klingler, plan to finish building a Deltec home by December. The couple was concerned about the future impacts of global warming and hurricanes on the Florida Keys and researched homes that were sustainable and designed to withstand these storms.
“We think we’re building something that will be a tremendous investment and reduce our risk of any major catastrophic situation,” Klingler said.
“People have been really open and accepting. They tell us that if a hurricane comes, they will stay at our place,” Padalino said.
Associated Press video journalist Laura Bargfield in Mexico Beach and photographer Gerald Herbert in New Orleans contributed.