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When a disaster is caused by violent meteorological phenomena, there can be extensive property damage and even the loss of human life. And in Florida’s coastal communities, livelihoods can be utterly devastated by natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods.
While property owners cannot control the weather, they can call on industry specialists who have the resources and experience necessary to fortify buildings to mitigate damage.
In this article, three local building professionals share their insights on safeguarding structures against hurricane-related catastrophes. Since doors and windows are among the weakest points in the building envelope, these gentlemen will address how to strengthen and reinforce these vulnerable entry points.
Meet the Experts
Ron Dable is the Vice President of A-Christian Glass, a family-owned and operated supplier and installer of windows and door systems. What started out as a small glass service company in 1988 has since grown into a full-service business equipped to handle a variety of project needs, from minor glass replacements in residences to fabricating custom installations for major high-rises and commercial developments. The company is located in Delray Beach, Fla., and currently employs 70 full-time staff members.
“It’s important for people to not only protect their personal property, but also the properties of their neighbors, friends and families,” says Dable. “For example, if you install hurricane windows in your home, but your next-door neighbor decides not to, this could result in structural damage to your property. And vice versa. We all must come together and make sure that we’re protecting the entire environment around us.”
Blair Novy serves as President of Door Systems of South Florida, a commercial overhead door company launched in 1994, and Overhead Door of the Gold Coast, established in 2002 to handle residential garage door system needs. Novy grew his family-owned business from two people to 26, and operates out of Pompano Beach, Fla. The certified Small Business Enterprise belongs to a nationwide network of more than 450 authorized Ribbon Distributors for Overhead Door Corp., one of the most recognized brands in the garage door industry.
“It is hard to imagine any disaster worse than a Category 5 hurricane. We all remember Hurricane Andrew, the lives it affected and how it basically changed the landscape of South Florida,” says Novy. “As a father of four and a grandfather of three, protecting others is extremely important to me—and enhancing the safety of those in our community is a top priority for my company.”
“The problems in the hauling industry have put contractors and drivers on opposing sides, so people built walls of defense against the natural challenges that exist around business and the exchange of goods and money.” Travis Jones, Chief Technology Officer and Co-founder, Dauber Applications LLC
Jonathan Pipping is President of M&A Windows, Inc., a supplier and installer of impact and non-impact doors, windows and commercial storefronts. Founded in 2008 and headquartered in Pembroke Pines, Fla., the 12-member firm works on a variety of project types, including townhouses, condominiums and high-end custom homes, and specializes in residential retrofits. This Ygrene-certified contractor is also a distributor for manufacturers such as PGT, CGI and WinDoor.
“When we improve the integrity of a structure, we know the people in it are going to be a lot safer riding out these storms,” says Pipping. “On occasion our company has provided windows to folks in need or to those who have had life-altering events and needed to redesign. For instance, we provided the windows and doors used in a home remodel for a firefighter’s widow, and we installed impact glass in the home of a disabled veteran who had mobility issues.”
In the face of South Florida’s violent storms, each of these building professionals is dedicated to preserving not just structures but the lives of the people in their communities. This mission starts with understanding the codes and standards that enhance construction choices for hurricane-prone regions.
Building Codes Increase Accountability
In August 1992, one of the century’s most powerful hurricanes slammed into South Florida. Hurricane Andrew produced a 17-foot storm surge near its landfall point just south of Miami, but the most extensive damage was attributed to gale-force winds clocked at speeds up to 177 miles per hour. Post-disaster investigations revealed that many catastrophic building failures were likely preventable—breeches in the building envelope had led to internal pressurizations, which essentially doubled the forces on major structural elements. Thus, it was determined that outdated building codes, shoddy construction and poor inspection practices were partly to blame for the devastation that left hundreds of thousands of Floridians homeless. These findings stirred statewide building code reforms and enforcement.
Building codes and testing standards are essential to maintaining property safety under different environmental conditions. The Florida Building Code is based on the International Building Code, with region-specific amendments and supplements that address building issues specific to Florida. The Florida Building Commission (FBC) updates these codes every three years, with the next edition scheduled to be released in 2017.
For building products to be up to code in hurricane-prone areas, the Florida Building Code mandates that products meet certain wind-load requirements. In addition to building officials conducting their own assessments on whether products are appropriately hurricane resistant, these codes set forth additional standards for the performance of products, materials and systems of construction.
These stringent standards increase accountability across the board—from the designers who recommend products to the contractors that install and maintain them. The evaluation of products covered by the FBC can only be conducted by nationally accredited and state-approved entities, or by state-licensed engineers and architects.
Covered products are those that tie into the structural integrity of buildings, which include windows, skylights, exterior doors, shutters, roofing, panel walls, structural components and other building envelope elements. The manufacturers of covered products must also maintain quality assurance programs, monitored by a third-party entity, to verify continued compliance.
Behind Closed Doors: Structural Integrity
When a hurricane hits, the largest openings in a structure are usually at the greatest risk of wind penetration.
“A residential garage door is typically the largest entryway into the house, and therefore the most vulnerable to storm damage,” says Novy. “When a garage door fails and hurricane-force winds enter the house, the positive pressure can cause the roof to lift and separate from the building’s frame and windows blowing out (or in). Potentially, this breech can completely destroy a structure.”
In addition to various wind-load requirements, the Florida Building Code also has hurricane-impact protection requirements to protect against large debris piercing the door.
“In South Florida’s Miami-Dade and Broward counties, garage door systems must meet a High-Velocity Hurricane Zone (HVHZ) rating,” adds Novy. “Under HVHZ standards, garage doors must be built of heavier-gauge steel and run along heavier tracks than a standard garage door. Sometimes hurricane posts are required to compensate for overly wide openings.”
Compared to systems used in other parts of the country, garage doors built for South Florida are generally 25-50 percent heavier and cost up to twice as much. “In addition to the high-quality materials needed, the added expense comes from this being a very labor-intensive system to install. It can take up to three times longer to install these heavy-duty systems compared to standard, non-hurricane doors,” says Novy.
Many times, the expense to increase the strength of an existing garage door is comparable to the price of replacing the door with a new one, affirms Novy. “And while an existing garage door can be retrofitted with additional horizontal supports and track attachments, the door cannot be certified to meet any specific wind load or building code requirement,” he says. /p>
At the minimum, all garage doors should be inspected and maintained annually to ensure that they are in proper working condition. There are also insurance incentives to installing garage doors that are up to code. “A new garage door that meets the current wind-load standards can help you save money on your homeowners insurance should you have a wind litigation inspection performed,” adds Novy.
In coastal environments, windows and glazed portions of doors are vulnerable to impact from windborne debris, which can include objects from both the natural environment and the built environment (e.g., tree limbs, roofing and siding materials, sawn lumber, etc.).
Hurricane windows, also called impact windows, are basically shatterproof because they are made with heavy-duty glass surrounded by a strong, sturdy frame.
Impact-resistant glazing products must demonstrate, through rigorous testing, that the assembled system can handle impact from projectiles of certain sizes and at certain speeds, as well as tolerate fluctuating wind pressures. These systems are usually non-porous and consist of assemblies fabricated with two or more panes of glass and an interlayer film laminated into a glazing assembly. During impact testing, the glass panes can fracture but the interlayer must remain intact.
“In every window,” says Dable, “there are different levels of hurricane protection that can be obtained. One avenue of making glass stronger applies to the inner layer, usually made of PVB (polyvinyl butyral), which comes in different millimeter thicknesses—.03, .06 or .09. The thicker the glass, the stronger the window. There’s another interlayer option called SGP, or SentryGlas® Plus, which is a bit more costly but is a stronger product versus the PVB.” SentryGlas ionoplast interlayers, manufactured by DuPont, are five times stronger and considerably stiffer than conventional laminating materials. “Vinyl-framed windows can offer maximum protection as well, and are longer lasting than a metal-framed window and require less maintenance,” says Pipping. “The new technology these days comes with a lifetime warranty against peeling, fading and cracking, and provides energy protection.”
When you’re designing protective solutions, you have to think about more than just debris flying around. Water intrusion can also result in major damage.
“Water can get inside virtually anything, especially in South Florida because we live in an extremely moisture-saturated environment,” says Pipping. “On new construction, prior to installing our windows, we use a concrete block sealer that is now required by the Florida Building Code, which keeps out moisture around the window opening.”
Know Your Product
Pipping lists some of the major benefits of adding impact doors and windows to structures. “First and foremost, you get protection from the hurricanes. These energy-efficient products also help you save money on your electric bill, mitigate noise pollution and offer protection against intruders,” he says.
With impact glazing products, you also get a passive system that stays working 24/7 after it’s installed. “This is a huge benefit—you don’t have to be home to protect your house. And if you’re home, you don’t have to go outside and put up shutters, or close latches and things like that,” says Pipping.
He shares that not all design schemes are conducive to the built environment in South Florida.
“Right now, one of the trends that I’m seeing is that designers want bigger pieces of glass. This is a beautiful, understandable design approach in a paradise like South Florida, where millions flock to live and vacation. But inherent to those designs are some weaknesses. For instance, if an architect draws a huge window and puts it right in the corner, without any structural support, this creates a weak point in structural integrity. It also limits the products you can use and drives the price up considerably,” says Pipping.
He adds: “I also see a lot of products drawn into plans that don’t fit the environment. The atmosphere here is normally between 60 and 80 percent humidity, so if designers specify a wood window system, this sets up the owner for disaster down the road because wood is not going to withstand water forever. Designers need to familiarize themselves with the building materials that we know will work in the state of Florida, such as aluminum and vinyl, to avoid potential pitfalls.”
When custom tailoring product solutions for homes and businesses, the local setting also must be taken into consideration.
“We analyze the neighborhood and surrounding areas to determine how strong products have to be. We assess the environment around the structure, the structure’s proximity to open bodies of water and whether there’s potential for vandalism in that neighborhood,” says Pipping. “For example, if you have a beach house with nothing on one side except open water, then those windows must be constructed to withstand a lot more pressure than a home that’s in a neighborhood surrounded with trees and fences and things that would block most of the direct wind.”
Oftentimes, local contractors can provide creative building solutions that incorporate hurricane protection design.
“I recently visited the home of a client who had some really large windows. The client originally thought that nothing could be done to replace those windows with hurricane-resistant products,” says Dable. “However, we came up with a solution by offering to install a curtainwall system, which is what we use for high-rises.” Normally, a residential glass contractor would not have the experience or connections to install a curtainwall system, but since Dable’s business also specializes in commercial work, the team knew of a manufacturer that had a curtainwall system that would be perfect for this application.
When it comes to hurricanes, definite steps can be taken to reduce the risks they pose to people and property. These solutions are not trade secrets—you just have to know who to ask. And in South Florida, the local building and construction experts are some of the savviest authorities on protecting structures against harsh weather systems.
“It’s our jobs to have a diverse understanding of available products, which are changing constantly. Our insights can serve to maximize the effectiveness of storm protection solutions,” says Dable.