The weather has dominated global headlines lately, breaking records for new extremes. One of the latest U.S. disasters, Hurricane Michael, downed powerlines across the eastern seaboard in October, leaving 3.3 million homes and businesses from Florida to New York without electricity for days.
Whether caused by storms or other issues, major power outages can make homes uninhabitable even if they remain structurally intact after a storm. In the days after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, architect and building science expert Alex Wilson wondered how to mitigate situations like the sweltering conditions at the Louisiana Superdome, which overheated without electricity. He saw that even homes that the floodwaters spared were without power for weeks.
Wilson and other building industry leaders are responding with a new idea that can help homeowners not only survive but also be comfortable in their homes for long periods of time without electricity. With the right tactics, builders can create resilient homes that stand up to wind, rain, and snow, and then maintain occupant comfort for as many as seven days without power—even in extreme hot or cold conditions.
“It’s called passive survivability,” says Wilson, president of the Resilient Design Institute in Brattleboro, Vt. “It’s about building homes that remain habitable if they lose power.”
Homes built with passive survivability in mind include a super-efficient envelope with good insulation and air sealing, and energy-efficient windows that take advantage of passive solar gain and natural ventilation. Solar panels and home batteries can further improve a home’s resilience during an outage. Passive House principles are the best path to follow when building this type of home, Wilson says.
These homes can maintain a habitable temperature independent of their mechanical heating and cooling systems (and without backup generators), allowing homeowners to shelter in place in case of a lengthy power outage.
“The idea is to create houses that will passively keep people safe during extended power outages or loss of heating fuel,” says Wilson. “It’s the right time for these ideas to come to the forefront.”