Build a More Resilient Homestead

A longtime energy and resilience expert offers advice on how to make your home and land disaster-resistant.

| December 2016/January 2017

The only certainty about the future is that we can’t predict it. We don’t know when there will be another major storm, earthquake, drought, or terrorist event. With the effects of a changing climate becoming more apparent, interest in resilience is growing rapidly — particularly in coastal areas that will be affected most by sea level changes and storm surges. Homesteaders who value independence and self-sufficiency are making their homes and properties more resilient. So what is resilience? The Resilient Design Institute defines resilience as “the capacity to adapt to changing conditions and to maintain or regain functionality and vitality in the face of stress or disturbance.” In part, this means that resilience is about being prepared for climate change, though the goal of resilience should appeal even to those who don’t share that growing concern. Resilience is about keeping your family safe and secure, no matter what happens.

Flood Resilience

When you’re working toward a resilient homestead, the placement of buildings and gardens relative to flood risk should be a major consideration. My wife and I purchased our farm in southern Vermont shortly after Hurricane Irene wreaked havoc on buildings, infrastructure, and farmland throughout the state. The property we found has about 10 acres of agricultural fields, all perched more than 150 feet above the West River. In an extreme rainfall event, we will get some soggy areas, but our sandy soil should do far better than the river-bottom land that was so affected by Irene.

To achieve flood resilience, we trenched on the uphill side of an old outbuilding that we’d just restored against a hillside. This trench captures moisture coming downhill during an intense storm or spring runoff when the ground is still frozen. Free-draining stone and drainage tile below should keep the building dry. We also put in similar drainage on our 1812 barn, which had suffered moisture damage in the past.

To assess your risk of flooding, get hold of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood maps for your area. I recommend going further than just avoiding the 100-year flood zones; also avoid the 500-year flood zones. Be aware that in some areas, the FEMA flood maps are out of date, or they don’t account for smaller streams and rivers that could flood in an extreme event. To protect against flood damage, keep mechanical and electrical equipment out of basements and even above the first floor in flood-prone regions. This is good practice even in areas where flooding is very rare. By building a super-efficient home, you can minimize the need for mechanical heating and cooling equipment and often put in much smaller systems than are common in most homes.

Our home heating system is an air-source heat pump (often called a “mini-split”). The indoor unit is mounted high on a first-floor wall, while the outside unit is mounted on the south side of our house, well above the ground on blocks.

Wind Resilience

With scientists predicting more intense storms with climate change, almost any new building should be designed and built with state-of-the-art measures for storm resistance. This could include a particularly robust structural frame, use of hurricane strapping and various tie-down strapping, installation of wind-rated shingles or metal roofing, and impact-resistant windows or exterior storm shutters. Wind resilience also means paying attention to surrounding trees that could fall on a building in a heavy wind. Consider removing high-risk trees or branches.

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