With new housing design in Joplin, people stay put after disaster

Friday, November 1, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
Mick and Doris Samuelson look at the damage to their property in Wayne, Neb. A tornado struck the northeast Nebraska town last Friday, causing millions of dollars in damage, but the mayor says no one was killed and the injuries reported have been minor. Mayor Ken Chamberlain said officials have accounted for all residents in town.

JOPLIN — The tornado that struck Joplin 29 months ago left thousands of people homeless.

That forced the Federal Emergency Management Agency to spend millions of dollars to provide temporary housing as well as the infrastructure needed to support 586 families who couldn't find a place to live. For some, that displacement would last 18 months.

Now, a new design for a home that critics are describing as ingenious could — if widely adopted — reduce the need for that type of assistance after a tornado strikes a community, The Joplin Globe reports.

The design would allow the occupants to continue to live in their home even after it has been hit by a tornado.

The house design recently won the "Designing Recovery" competition sponsored by the American Institute of Architects, Make it Right, the St. Bernard Project and Architecture for Humanity. Rebuild Joplin is an affiliate of the St. Bernard Project.

Architects were asked to design housing for communities that experienced three distinct disasters: Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Superstorm Sandy in New York and the 2011 tornado in Joplin.

The designs for Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy featured elevated and energy-efficient structures that could withstand a storm surge.

The design selected for Joplin, created by Q4 Architects of Toronto, features a new approach to the concept of a safe room. It's called the "core" — a 600-square-foot room constructed above ground with concrete masonry, hurricane shutters and tornado-proof doors in which a family could survive the tornado and live after the tornado. The core contains Murphy beds, a kitchen, a bathroom and emergency backup systems.

If a tornado was approaching the home, its occupants could close down the core and prevent any air from entering the space. A typical wood-frame home collapses when the wind blows out the windows and garage door. That causes the roof to lift off. With no roof, the walls collapse. It all happens within seconds.

With the winning design, the home's bedrooms, living room, porch and other rooms are wrapped around the core. They might not survive the storm, but the core would.

"Part of your house might get blown away, but the most important parts of the house are safe. You're able to protect the people, the functions of the house, and maybe your valuables," said Elizabeth George, senior architect with Q4.

"It really is the intersection of two homes. There's the core or safe house and the perimeter house, which can be anything you would want it to be, depending on what you can afford and the type of livable spaces you need," George said. "You could really personalize this home on many levels."

By building the core above ground, the design has universal applications for areas in which the geology makes it impossible to build tornado cellars or basements.

"It's about maintaining a home post-disaster," she said. "By compartmentalizing it, we can put absolutely everything we need in one portion of the house so that you can live in that portion of the house through the post-disaster event.

"You would not have to rely on emergency or governmental shelter," she said. "It would have room for sleeping, dining, a bathroom and laundry — all of the mechanical needs are in the core."

Photovoltaic panels on the roof could provide energy after the storm.

"All of this is based on not having to leave the community to live," she said.

Troy Bolander, Joplin's planning and community development director, was a judge in the competition.

"I was honored to be asked to be on the selection committee," Bolander said. "They wanted a local perspective to a national competition in which some of the designs pertained to Joplin."

The criteria for the designs stressed affordability, energy efficiency and resiliency. The challenge for the architects was to design a place that was both safe and where people would be willing to live.

"I was looking for a design that would fit in. It has a bungalow style to it that is typical of our affordable neighborhoods," Bolander said. "But it was the area inside of the house that could be used as a safe room that impressed me.

"You could continue to live in your house after the disaster. From my perspective, that was a very creative way of using a safe room."

The safe room would cost about $50,000 to construct. The rooms that wrap around the core could range in cost from $50,000 to $100,000, making the design an affordable option and one in which the owner could personalize the appearance of the home.

The Q4 design was among eight submitted in the tornado category.

"The plan is to build this house in Joplin," said Bolander. "This is not a wish list or a grandiose design of what could happen. The intention is to build this type of home in Joplin."

Chad Carson, with Rebuild Joplin, said, "We would love to build one here, but this would be a little more than our standard cost of construction. We're going to have to develop a creative way to fund this house. We'll look for sponsors to help bring the cost down."

Carson said the core concept of the design is creative, but its strongest selling feature could be its energy efficiency.

"It's a very pragmatic design that will decrease the cost of living in the house," he said.

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