The year 2017 was hard on everyone. Recovery from hurricanes, wildfires and flooding are still in progress with more to come. One of the lessons we learn every time a natural disaster hits is that most buildings and homes were never built to withstand extreme events.
Of all the damaged buildings, those made of steel survived the best, but even steel construction can use a little help to remain intact and as undamaged as possible when Mother Nature unleashes her worst.
What We Faced in 2017
Beginning with tornado outbreaks in the southern United States in mid-to-late January, extreme weather got off to a roaring start. Not much can withstand a direct hit from a tornado, but your steel building can survive the high winds and flying debris from a relatively near miss if it is built for the weather.
- Tornadoes continued to plague the U.S., with outbreaks in the Central/Southeastern states in February and the Midwest in March.
- California suffered flooding in February and then wildfires throughout the summer and fall. Other Western states also were hit by wildfires.
- Missouri and Arkansas also saw flooding in the late spring while severe storms and hail racked Minnesota and the Upper Midwest, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
- A trio of strong Hurricanes — Harvey, Irma and Maria — lashed the Gulf Coast of Texas, the southern tip of Florida and the island of Puerto Rico.
Many of these areas continue to try to recover but the going is slow, and the bill for 2017 has been estimated at more than $306 billion. In addition to past problems, earthquakes are predicted in Southern California this year, and Spring 2018 has dished out everything from blizzards to strong storms with hail, more wildfires and flooding.
Obviously, disasters come with a high cost in human lives, property and cash. Much of this can be mitigated by designing for safety and building with steel.
Materials and Design
Commercial grade steel has the highest strength to weight ratio of any traditional construction material. As building codes become more stringent, steel is one of the few materials able to meet the new requirements.
In addition to being the material of choice for building to withstand natural disasters, steel is also a “green” material that reduces the reliance on less sustainable products that lead to slower construction times.
- Steel mills have cut emissions significantly in the past few decades. Producing steel uses less water and emits fewer gasses into the atmosphere than ever before.
- Steel is 100% recyclable with no loss of strength. Most existing steel is made of a high percentage of recycled steel, and all steel scrap and waste are returned for recycling during production, construction and demolition.
- Building with prefabricated steel structures reduces the construction timeline, reducing emissions from equipment and laborer time onsite.
- A well-insulated steel building is energy efficient, using as little as half as much to heat and cool as buildings constructed of other materials.
- Replacing lumber with steel means fewer trees are harvested. Since it can take up to 20 years to replace a tree, steel is eminently more sustainable. Leave the trees to soak up the carbon dioxide and furnish oxygen instead of holding up a house.
As a contractor or builder, you can use steel to build to building code-plus. Steel construction more than meets most building codes, providing a higher margin of safety and the potential for less damage.
A strong foundation is critical in earthquake country, which is no longer limited to the west coast. Soil samples and a consultation with a geotechnical engineer will provide your foundation designer with information needed to engineer a foundation that can support a rocking building.
Hurricanes and Tornadoes
Extremely high winds produce extreme uplift. Rugged roof and building design are imperative. A steel roof system with the appropriate fastener design and secondary framing that reinforces the corners and overhang of the roof panels will keep the top of the building from flying off.
Adding high impact doors and windows also will reduce the amount of damage to repair.
Steel is non-combustible. With steel wall and roof panels, sparks that reach the structure will not create a blaze nor spread flames. Designing the roof with minimal overhang can keep the structure from channeling hot air while using fire-resistant materials for soffits, decks and balconies further reduce the potential for fire.
To reduce damage, it is recommended to clear a 30-foot radius around any structure of flammable materials.
Steel comes with a protective coating to keep corrosion from moisture at bay. A steel structure that is flooded will still require the insulation, some flooring and anything else that could mold to be replaced as soon as possible, but the metal frame and panels will receive no lasting damage.
Interior walls constructed with steel studs will only require damaged drywall to be removed instead of having to replace an entire wood wall frame.
The Benefits of Steel
The biggest benefit of steel when building to withstand natural disasters is its durability. Steel is strong yet lightweight, allowing you to design for safety without bulk that would cause undue pressure on the foundation.
- Steel is a versatile material that can be obtained in any color, texture or pattern you need to match or contrast with the surrounding area.
- A steel roof can lower insurance premiums because it comes with a long-term standard warranty and is fire-resistant. Even if lightning strikes, the electricity spreads across the roof and is grounded through the walls.
- Prefabricated steel buildings shorten the construction timeline. Replacing damaged structures after a natural disaster is quicker with steel than wood or concrete, and the resulting building or home will better withstand the next round of floods, fires, earthquakes and hurricanes.
- Steel is ductile. Earthquakes may make it bend, but it won't crack, shatter or collapse. In earthquake country, falling debris is one of the biggest hazards. A steel frame building can protect its occupants from being buried.
- Steel does not mold, corrode or get chewed on by pests. Not all natural disasters are weather-driven. Infestations of termites are a thing of the past with steel construction.
Natural disasters will continue to occur. The best we can do is to prepare for them well, using the strongest and most durable building material possible. Steel is the best all-around construction material available; it protects, it is versatile, and it is sustainable.