What climate change and extreme weather mean for real estate

by Lotus Abrams

For many of us, our homes represent safe havens where we feel secure, comfortable and protected from the elements. As extreme weather events associated with climate change grow in frequency, however, our homes, in turn, are becoming more vulnerable. From floods, hurricanes and severe winter storms to droughts, wildfires and extreme heat, residential communities face a growing number of climate-related threats. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Centers for Environmental Information’s U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters report, severe weather events have caused over $1 trillion in damage in the last 10 years, and the number and cost of weather and climate disasters is increasing.

The impact on residences has been substantial, says Alex Wilson, president of the Resilient Design Institute in Dummerston, Vermont, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring that homes and communities can endure — essentially remain resilient — in our changing climate. “Recently with Hurricane Ian, we saw tremendous damage in the Fort Myers area of Southwest Florida,” Wilson says. “Significant damage to homes was experienced, and power outages were experienced by millions of customers. In the West, drought and wildfires have had a huge impact, and in areas affected by drought or wildfire, heavy precipitation can cause devastating landslides.”

For homebuyers, factoring climate risk into the decision can be daunting, as not all residences are created equal when it comes to withstanding extreme weather events. Innovative approaches to new construction designed to protect against extreme weather conditions continue to emerge, although not all developers are taking climate risk into consideration. There’s a big variation in older homes, as well, as many have been constructed with building codes that aren’t as stringent as today’s, while others may be more durable than newer construction. Some older homes can be retrofitted to handle extreme weather events, however, and zoning is another factor to consider.

Understanding regional risks is paramount for any potential homeowner, and unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to achieving residential resiliency. “There are big differences between coastal South Carolina and Northern California for example,” Wilson stresses. “Risk of hurricanes in South Carolina argue for both wind and flood resilience, while in Northern California, wildfire is a far greater risk.”

The more Realtors know about extreme weather risks, the better prepared they’ll be to help prospective homebuyers navigate the troubled waters of purchasing a home in an era of climate change. Valuable resources like RiskFactor.com and ClimateCheck.com provide climate risk assessments for a particular property. But it’s also important to get a sense of the ways architects, communities and organizations are addressing extreme weather concerns. Here’s a closer look at what’s happening around the country, from new building techniques to affordable retrofits and collaborative mitigation efforts.

Weathering the wind and water

By far the most damaging and costly extreme weather events hitting the country are tropical cyclones, which regularly pummel coastal cities with high winds and floods. Rising sea levels compound the problem. “Flooding is becoming a bigger issue, particularly in coastal areas, so we need to reconsider where we build and incorporate flood resilience measures in homes that have any chance of flooding,” Wilson says. “Storms are getting more severe, so we also need to practice wind-resistant design.”

Miami is one city taking a proactive approach. The $400 million Miami Forever Bond, passed in 2017, is committed to making the city stronger and more resilient by investing in projects that address pressing issues like sea-level rise and flood prevention. Miami also recently passed a city ordinance that eased a height limit restriction beneath single-family homes with city Design Review Board approval.

As architects and developers work to meet demand for housing that can weather the region’s devastating storms, innovative solutions have emerged that are generating buzz. One is Arkup’s Livable Yacht, launched at the Miami International Boat Show in 2019 and now available in two models. The 100% solar electric energy-powered dwelling features electric propulsion and navigation, can go from floating to self-lifting over the water and is designed to safely withstand a category 3 hurricane, according to Arkup CEO and cofounder Nicolas Derouin. The initial round of orders is already in the production phase, and the first Arkup 75 is privately owned and occupied in Miami. “Miami is a great example where issues like prohibitive pricing of waterfront properties and rising sea-level make life near water difficult,” Derouin says. “The advantage of Arkup is that it can sail to a safe harbor and be completely raised above the water on its four legs.” Prices for the smaller Arkup 40 model start at $800,000, while the larger Arkup 75 model starts at $4 million.

Building a new home higher off the ground or purchasing a floating home may be too costly for some people, but there are other ways homeowners and builders can protect against water damage, Wilson says. For example, moisture-management products such as advanced weather barriers for wood-frame houses can effectively shed rain while allowing water vapor to escape so that walls can dry out if they do get wet. “When combined with a rain screen detail — an air space behind the house siding — homes are well protected from damage due to the wind-driven rain experienced in hurricanes,” he says.

Developers are also planning entire communities in Florida with resilience in mind. Wilson points to Babcock Ranch near Fort Myers, which was ground-zero for Hurricane Ian in September. “The Category 4 hurricane sat over the new town for eight hours with 140-mph winds, and there was almost no damage, except for signage and newly planted trees,” he says. “The town, now with 2,000 homes but with 19,000 at build-out, never lost power because 100% of the utilities are buried underground. All buildings are built to the strictest hurricane codes and are slab-on-grade, so flooding is almost impossible, and the waterways are designed to handle 25 inches of rainfall.”

Beating the heat

Across the country in Phoenix, the hottest large city in the country, residents routinely experience extreme heat conditions — and it’s getting hotter. Climate change, coupled with rapid development that has replaced natural, heat-absorbing landscapes with concrete infrastructure, has created urban “heat islands” that amplify the city’s temperature. In summer of 2020, the hottest summer on record in Phoenix, nearly 200 people died from extreme heat, when temperatures hit 110 degrees on 53 days.

The impact of these extremely hot conditions prompted Phoenix to create the Office of Heat Response and Mitigation to protect citizens from sweltering temperatures and pursue long-term goals of cooling the city, for example by planting trees to increase canopy cover. Phoenix is also applying a specially formulated gray, porous, water-based asphalt treatment to streets to reduce the heat they absorb and emit as part of the Cool Pavement Pilot Program, launched in 2020 and since expanded to a citywide program.

In this harsh climate, building design and construction methods can do a lot to mitigate the extreme heat. “Temperatures are rising, so we should be modifying our energy design — incorporating features like exterior shading, reflective roofs, natural ventilation and larger cooling systems, or making sure cooling capacity can be increased in the future,” Wilson says. Unfortunately, should there be a power outage, many newer homes are not equipped to passively control overheating, unlike older homes built before the advent of air conditioning, which tend to incorporate features like wraparound porches that shade windows from direct sun and design that channels breezes through the house, Wilson says. “When we combine passive features of vernacular architecture with modern insulation materials and high-performance windows, we can create homes that are highly resilient in the face of power outages,” he says. “These homes will also use less energy during normal operation, so it’s a win-win.”

Passive cooling, daylight optimization and building envelope performance were all important considerations when Marlene Imirzian’s Phoenix- and Escondido, California-based architecture firm designed the ultra-low-energy HomeNZ, winner of the 2017 Sustainable Home Design competition, sponsored by the city of Phoenix and the American Institute of Architects (AIA). “In Phoenix, a lot of energy is used for air conditioning, but many times during the year you can actually use natural ventilation,” Imirzian says. “We integrated a solar chimney system into the house that’s designed to close down when the temperature reaches a certain level, and then the air-conditioning goes on.” Key to effectively combatting extreme heat is to limit direct sun on exterior glazing, Imirzian says. HomeNZ features sliding screens that block direct sun, making the home orientation neutral to work on any standard Phoenix lot. Insulation under the slab helps control temperature and reduce energy usage, as well. “It’s a key element we can do in new construction that’s hard to accomplish in a renovation, and it’s cost-effective,” Imirzian says. “You don’t have to take the budget through the roof to really look at the performance of the building envelope.”

The 2,650-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath home, which costs less than $350,000 to build, operates with near-net-zero energy use and at net zero with solar panels and a battery. With so many newer developments in Phoenix not optimized for energy efficiency and extreme heat protection, the city hopes to encourage more eco-friendly homes by offering the plans for free to all.

Living with wildfires

In the West, wildfires pose a serious threat to many residential communities, and as weather becomes hotter and drier due to climate change, they’re becoming a growing concern in other regions, as well. In May, First Street Foundation released a nationwide wildfire risk assessment that shows more than 70 million properties in the U.S. are at some risk from wildfires, with more than 4 million at severe or extreme risk. The data will be integrated into Realtor.com to help prospective buyers assess the potential wildfire risk of properties they’re considering.

“Climate change impacts are starting to mean that the big fires we’re seeing are encroaching on places we’ve built, or that we’ve encroached on the places that are wildfire prone, and unfortunately, we’re seeing a lot more structure and community damage,” says National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Wildfire Division Director Michele Steinberg.

Individually, homeowners can reduce the risk of their homes’ going up in flames by taking measures to keep embers and flames from entering the house, such as installing a noncombustible roof, double-pane windows and 1/8-inch metal mesh screening on vents; cleaning roofs and gutters of dead leaves and debris; and moving any flammable material like mulch and firewood piles away from wall exteriors. For new construction, builders can reference chapter 7A of California’s statewide building code that addresses high wildfire risk areas, a valuable resource in any area prone to those conditions.

Recognizing that wildfire mitigation is a cooperative effort, the NFPA launched the Firewise USA program in 2002 to recognize small communities that are taking action to reduce the risk of fire around their homes. Nearly 2,000 communities are participating in the program across 43 states. “The idea is to get people not only working on their own property, but working together with their neighbors to reduce those shared risks,” Steinberg says. “The good news is that all of the things people can do to protect their homes, whether it’s new construction or an existing property, are relatively easy and affordable and are proven to work, especially when your neighbors do it too.”

This community-minded, collaborative approach to mitigating wildfire damage is what prompted the 30,000-plus member Colorado Association of REALTORS (CAR) to launch Colorado Project Wildfire (CPW) in 2015. The education program’s task force of members across the state works to raise awareness about wildfire risk and provide residents with access to critical information and resources.

“The risk of wildfire is real, and it’s not going away,” says Elizabeth Peetz, vice president of government affairs for the Colorado Association of REALTORS. “According to a 2019 report from the Colorado State Forest Service, at least half of our state’s 6 million residents live in a wildfire-prone area. Over the last few years, and certainly with the catastrophic Marshall Fire that destroyed 1,000 homes in Boulder County over the final few days of 2021, we know that number is low and that the risk is far greater than we first believed.”

Better together

As the country’s communities grapple with climate change, taking a proactive approach is imperative, experts agree. “We simply have to plan for a more disruptive future,” Wilson says.

Peetz stresses that effective community-based solutions must include a public-private coalition of stakeholders delivering shared messaging; subject-matter expertise; funding resources; public outreach; and leveraging of resources, opportunities and programs. And, she stresses, real estate agents, who have direct relationships with homeowners, have every reason to get involved.

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