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Resilient Plan Blog

19 September 2017

How to build a Resilient Home - Frame Construction

A little over a week ago I was on a flight from Boston to Santiago, Chile with a layover in Bogota. The path of the plane was right above the center of Cuba.

The flight had a rough ride; hurricane Irma was only a short distance away, and we were flying just in front of its path. I was a bit surprised that we even got that close to the center of the storm. I thought a bigger detour would make sense, but I guess for the sake of fuel savings we were in for a harsh, bumpy experience.

However, despite all of that irregular shaking and bouncing it was pretty comfortable inside of the plane - it was built to withstand that kind of environment.

In my thoughts, I felt sorry for all those people who were about to feel the fury of a category five hurricane. It was sad to realize that in just a short amount of time homes of thousands of people would be damaged, shredded into pieces or flooded.

Once again, I was convinced that there is a great need in the world for stronger, more durable and resilient homes, that can better withstand severe hostile impacts of nature.

So... How do I build a Resilient Home? Let's start with the frame - the primary structural system that supports other components of construction.

I think there are many ways how to build a resilient home and I don't want to insist that there is only one way to do it and I am the one that happens to know the right way.

Each method has its pluses and minuses, and we have to make a choice based on the availability of materials and conditions of the environment. We just have to study all pros and cons of any method and find an intelligent solution on how to deal with the weaknesses.

Looking at the project in Chile I have to keep in mind that the main danger here is earthquakes and based on multiple feedback this is a major concern for my clients. So... I have to address that. Another danger that I have to consider - termites.

Invasion of subterranean termites in Chile started in 1986 probably introduced from the USA through the port city of Valparaiso, causing fear and confusion among locals who don’t have an idea how to deal with that problem.

Since then, the termites have spread a few hundred miles around the entry point, and the problem keeps on gaining traction. Local builders still extensively use wood in their construction, often in direct contact with the soil, which provides easy access for the wood-hungry insects. This spells nothing but trouble down the road for unsuspicious homeowners.

With all of the above in mind, it is very obvious to me that I will be better off building using metal frame vs. wood or masonry. Cold-formed steel as a construction material has many advantages.

The cold-formed steel studs are lightweight which helps to lower the total weight of the house, which is critical in building an earthquake-proof home. At the same time, steel is incredibly durable and has a high strength to weight ratio, helping to maintain structural strength and integrity of the building and resist wind and effects of violent seismic movements.

I think that no structure can completely protect us from the damage of an extensive seismic activity, but the goal of an earthquake-resistant construction is to build a house that fares much better than their conventional counterparts.

Just recently I watched a video on Youtube about a seismic test of two buildings - four-story wood building and a six-story metal framed building. The wood framed structure was tested at 7.2 by Richter magnitude scale alongside metal framed building tested at as high as 10.05 by the same scale.

"Which building would you rather be in when the next earthquake hits?" asked the narrator after the wood framed building collapsed. You'll have to answer that question.

Metall framing provides outstanding design flexibility which allows it to span over long distances. Steel studs don't shrink or split; they're noncombustible, impervious to pests and relatively easy to install.

Pre-punched holes in studs make rapid mechanical, electrical and plumbing installation possible right after the framing is complete. An additional benefit of a cold-formed steel framing is that there is no problem with creating straight walls and square corners.

To build a regular size house using wood framing requires on average 40 - 50 trees and the same house using steel framing - 5 to 6 recycled junk cars. At the end of a frame construction, wood typically leaves a pile of waste, while metal framing leaves practically none. Eventually at the end of its lifespan metal frame can be completely recycled again.

All of those benefits are indisputably great, but what about the cons, which all of those promoting steel framings always try to avoid mentioning or diminish its importance. I think it is always smarter to pay extra attention to the weaknesses, identify all potential problems and to try to illuminate them creatively.

The main issue of a steel cold-formed frame is thermal bridging which leads to heat loss, condensation, and the subsequent corrosion. Protective high-quality coatings of the metal studs cannot create a 100% defense against corrosion due to scratches or screw penetration. Combination of steel, water, and air always produces the same result...

Steel efficiently conducts heat, in fact, a few hundred times faster than wood. That is not a very good thing in construction because it quickly transfers the heat between the outside environment and the interior, significantly diminishing the benefits of insulation installed between the studs.

Another issue is the performance of lightweight cold-formed steel buildings during a fire. Everybody loves to mention that steel frame does not burn and this is true. But during extensive heat from the fire metal frame will lose its ability to support loads which will lead to sudden failure of the structure.

When the issues mentioned above are resolved, a metal frame is an ideal choice of a resilient material for your house. In the following blogs, I will explain how we are going to turn these disadvantages into an even greater strength for a Resilient Home.

D Koshuba,
Founder, ResilientPlanB.com

We are passionate about green eco-conscious living, healthy lifestyles,
and innovative construction technologies.
We would love to have you join us on our journey
as we share our experiences.