Development & Aid, Environment, Tierramerica

Houses Put to Flood and Hurricane Test

MEXICO CITY, Aug 31 2009 (IPS) - Over a span of eight years, a Mexican engineer visited areas thrashed by hurricanes. His goal was to design a home capable of withstanding nature's worst.

An elevated house resistant to hurricanes and floods. - Verónica Díaz Favela/IPS

An elevated house resistant to hurricanes and floods. - Verónica Díaz Favela/IPS

Federico Martínez was born in a land of cyclones. As a young boy in Mexico he saw the wind uproot trees and roll wooden houses “as if they were shoe boxes.” As an adult, he developed a house that can withstand winds up to 300 kilometers per hour and floods three meters deep.

The house created by this engineer from the National Polytechnic Institute (IPN) is a response to the United Nations recommendation that countries should develop housing units that can stand up to severe weather phenomena.

The fourth report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN entity, warns of an increase in hurricanes as a result of warmer average global temperatures, as well as rising sea levels – by as much as one meter by the end of the century.

Martínez developed the new approach at his company, Ingeniería Creativa en Acero (Creacero – Creative Engineering in Steel), with the support of the National Science and Technology Council and of the IPN.

“I came up with several designs for building cyclone-proof houses and, for years, for each hurricane that happened, I was going to see how it affected them,” he recounted.

He grew up in the city of Madero, in the eastern state of Tamaulipas, along the Gulf of Mexico. More than once, he saw that in the wake of the cyclones people and animals were killed by stepping on exposed electrical cables or disappeared in the flood currents.

His mission became to find an answer to nature's challenge. Since the end of July, visitors to the IPN's Dissemination Center for Science and Technology (CEDICYT) in Mexico City can see two prototypes of houses and one classroom-refuge, built by Martínez.

They don't look much different from any building painted white and violet. But their construction makes them resistant to category 5 hurricanes, the maximum intensity on the Saffir-Simpson scale, which measures wind intensity.

The house “is a cage of steel covered with concrete,” Martínez explained.

The houses are prefabricated and the floor area measures 42 square meters. Each has two bedrooms, a living/dining room, bathroom and kitchen. They also have a dome and small windows located both low and high in the walls.

These specialized windows serve as “a system of air convection; the warm air rises and, in this case, the upper windows are to let the warm air out, and the lower windows are for intake,” said Martínez. The windowpanes are protected by a film to prevent dwellers from being hurt if the windows are broken.

The houses were conceived for construction in coastal zones. Mexico has 15 states with ocean coasts, and are “very hot, and vulnerable to the effect of hurricanes,” Víctor Manuel López, coordinator of the IPN's climate change and sustainability program, told this reporter.

Along the nation's coasts, “everything that is there – people as well as infrastructure – is vulnerable to hurricanes, floods and rising sea level,” he said.

In the southeastern state of Quintano Roo, on the eastern side of the Yucatán Peninsula, “there are fishing communities that have already asked for an eight-kilometer breakwater to be built, and then to be relocated; some witnesses say the sea level was at one place and now is at another,” López said.

To deal with flooding associated with tropical storms, one of the houses Martínez developed is mounted upon pillars 2.8-meters tall.

“The floods pass below the house without damaging it, unless the water rises above three meters, which would be a very special case,” said the engineer.

If there is no impending threat of flooding, the area under the elevated house can be used as a carpark or a shaded patio. But it should be left without walls that would impede the flow of floodwaters.

A single-story, cyclone-resistant house costs approximately 32,000 dollars, and the elevated house costs 64,000, based on one-off construction costs. But the prices would drop by as much as two-thirds once they are mass produced. Construction time would also be reduced.

It took eight months to build the CEDICYT prototypes. “With industrialized production our capacity would be five minutes to build the steel profile and sheeting for one house,” Herón Colín Suárez, Creacero's administrative director, said in an interview for this report.

Prefabrication “will allow them to be built in a very short time, and at any site, even where there is no electricity because it can be screwed together. It would have an instruction manual, there will be prefabricated parts so that its construction is very fast, and skilled labor is not needed,” he explained.

Creacero is looking for financial contributions to set up a factory. Two machines need to be manufactured for production, a freight lift is needed, as well as trained staff. The total required investment is about 2.5 million dollars.

In addition to homes, the factory could make materials to build classrooms, hospitals or just about any type of smaller building. One example is the third prototype, on view at CEDICYT, a classroom-refuge measuring six by 15 meters. It is intended for classes, but also to be used as a safe place for people when hurricane-force winds hit.

The prototypes, created to stand up to cyclones, can also resist other extreme phenomena, such as tornadoes, avalanches and earthquakes, according to the engineer.

López said that in Japan they are developing hurricane and flood resistant houses, constructed in Bangladesh.

The advantage of the Mexican model is that it eliminates the major costs of importing technology, he said.

Mexico could face economic losses of up to 1.7 billion dollars from damage along its Atlantic and Pacific coasts during the current hurricane season, warned insurance companies at a seminar held at the beginning of the year.

According to the National Meteorological Service, Mexico's coastline could see the effects of as many 24 cyclones.

“The government has already streamlined the procedures for shelters where there are services available and people can gather,” but “those solutions are intended for larger populations and not for rural populations,” said López.

The value of the houses created by IPN and Creacero lies in the fact that they are intended for easy assembly in rural areas.

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