Can We Build Nature Proof Houses?

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 10, 2015

Is it a possible to design houses that can withstand hurricanes, tornadoes, ice storms, fires and even earthquakes? Is it possible to design homes like the internet where each node is protected from failures in other nodes? Is it possible to design dwellings that last thousands of years that can be continuously modernized?

tornado proof house

Every evening on the nightly news we see natural disasters destroying homes, towns and even cities. It’s completely obvious to all but a few that climate change is happening. Is it possible to create a way of life that is hardened against most of what mother nature can throw at us?

When I grew up in Miami back in the 1950s and 1960s we lived in concrete block houses built on top of poured terrazzo foundations, with roofs made with another poured material that had pebbles embedded in it. No wolf could blow it down. After a hurricane we’d go outside and see knocked down trees, small manufactured stuff blown about, and some houses might have a window bashed in, but the little concrete block houses stood like bunkers.


Is it time to stop building wood frame homes? Is it time to stop building roofs that need to be replaced every twenty years or blow off in a big wind? Isn’t it time we build electrical power grids with independent home energy systems with backups? Last week 67,842 homes lost power here from a so-so storm system. My power was off for a few hours, but I knew people who lost it for a day or two, and read about others having to wait 4-5 days.

If houses had battery systems like Tesla is designing, they could handle short power outages. Throw in generators that can kick in based on natural gas, and homes can withstand long outages. But the real long-term solution is to build homes with solar/wind generators so every dwelling is part of the energy grid. If we put all power lines under ground that would further secure the power system. Can you imagine cities without power poles? For years new neighborhoods have done this, but we should retrofit older subdivisions. The reason most of those homes lost power here last week was because of downed lines from falling branches and trees.


What if we designed homes to be continuously in-place upgradable? Could we design a house that can withstand anything nature can throw at it, be useable for a thousand years, and still be adaptable to new technology as its invented? Are single homes on small plots the most efficient design for maximum human happiness? What if four homes were push together but the families shared one big yard? Homes that can withstand natural disasters can also be very soundproof. They can also be made burglar proof too. If they shared some infrastructure such designs could save on building costs. If land use was optimized, shared gardens, swimming pools, and playgrounds would be more practical.

tornado proof school

We could design dwellings that could withstand extreme temperatures that used little central power, and could survive for time periods without taking power from the grid.

For some reason post-apocalyptic stories are very popular today at the movies, on television and in books. We could design energy self-sufficient housing that can withstand nature and the collapse of civilization. With better land utilization, and advanced techniques for gardening and animal husbandry, it would also be possible to make for self-sufficient neighborhoods. If we combined the philosophy of Mother Earth News, Make Magazine and Wired Magazine, we could reinvent the subdivision to combine the past and future into a more secure way of life.

In recent times many people have become preppers, hoarding food, water and AR-15s to prepare for the collapse of civilization. In all their scenarios the strong kill the weak to survive. We know what happens when civilization disappears—just watch the news covering Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. Survivors tend to be refuges, not preppers. Wouldn’t it be better if we design a more sturdy civilization. Does anyone want live under rule by AR-15/AK-47 owners?

If you search the internet on this topic you’ll find lots of sites describing people already working on inventing what I’m speculating. During the 2016 presidential elections we need to stop dwelling on how to return to the past, but think about how to design the future. Demanding a smaller government, less taxes and an every man for themselves way of life isn’t very imaginative—or positive.


Are You Prepared for a Natural Disaster?

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, February 11, 2015

If you’re a news junky like me, you probably wonder why the news for the last several years features so many stories on weather and natural disasters. When I was growing up Walter Cronkite hardly ever did a piece on the weather. Now we can’t go a day without hearing about some big natural event somewhere on Earth on the nightly news.

This piece of information jumped out at me while reading This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein:

Over the course of the 1970s , there were 660 reported disasters around the world, including droughts, floods, extreme temperature events, wildfires, and storms. In the 2000s, there were 3,322— a fivefold boost. That is a staggering increase in just over thirty years, and clearly global warming cannot be said to have “caused” all of it. But the climate signal is also clear. “There’s no question that climate change has increased the frequency of certain types of extreme weather events,” climate scientist Michael Mann told me in an interview, “including drought, intense hurricanes, and super typhoons, the frequency and intensity and duration of heat waves, and potentially other types of extreme weather though the details are still being debated within the scientific community.” 36

Klein, Naomi (2014-09-16). This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (p. 107). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Since I wondered about those statistics I did a Google search and found EM-DAT The International Disaster Database. The site is full of statistics and wonderful charts like this one:


Whenever I watch the news and see stories about hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, tornados, fires, blizzards, etc., it always disturbs me to see people made homeless, or forced to live without power and water. We once lived without power for thirteen days. Since then I’ve had the power go out a couple times for 2-3 days. When I see these news reports I often wonder what I would do if my house was destroyed, or if I had to live without utilities for a very long time. I’ve known a number of Katrina refuges. They just moved away from New Orleans forever.

Who do I know around the country that would put me up? Luckily, my wife works out of town, so I have a second home to go to. But if I had to stay in Memphis, I know a number of friends who’d put me up. But that would only be temporary. And what if I was homeless without any of my paperwork, maybe without even my wallet, how do I reestablish myself? I know the Red Cross helps people in times like that. This makes me think I should cache some important papers in a bank vault or at a friend’s house.

Ever since Hurricane Elvis devastated Memphis in 2003, with straight line winds, I’ve always kept a bunch of flashlights and battery lanterns around. I should keep more bottled water and ready-to-eat non-refrigerated food. And what about medicines? It makes me wonder if I should have an emergency backpack? And what should go in it? It’s something to think about.

Living without electricity and heat is one thing, living without plumbing is a whole other issue. When the water is shut off and you can’t flush the toilet, you quickly realize the value of civilization. I once wondered when the water was shut off while the utility company was working on the main, if I shouldn’t store several plastic jugs of water for flushing the toilet. However, I don’t know how practical that would be.

What if my truck was destroyed, or the roads were blocked? Could I just walk away? Bicycle? Where would I go? Generally, disasters are local. Cell phones are a miracle. I could call a friend that lives somewhere nearby that’s outside of the damage zone. Who? Luckily, I don’t have children or pets. That must be an extra nightmare to deal with.

I should read blogs and memoirs by people who have lived through catastrophes to pick up tips. This is an interesting topic to think about. More than likely, I won’t do much to prepare, assuming like most people, that I’ll always be safe. But it probably wouldn’t hurt to make some preparations.

And has climate change worsens, I suppose we could have many times more natural disasters each decade. What if there were 10,000 in a decade? Will everyone become super-prepared? Can we build tornado proof houses? When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s some people built bomb shelters because they were afraid of nuclear war. Will people start building natural disaster proof houses? Or weather bunkers?


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