These Housing Innovations Remove The Risk Of Rising Climate Threats

Chris Anderson is the CEO at Greensborough, North Carolina-based, modular home building company Vantem that delivers a solution at only $100 per square foot. This product, backed by Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy fund, is made with refractory materials to be fire resistant, survives category 5 hurricane damage, and withstands up to 8.2 magnitude earthquakes.

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By Jennifer Castenson

As you read this you may be experiencing one of the hottest days in history in your area or breathing smoke from a wildfire. These situations are more and more common, causing physical impacts, but also bringing process and design questions into discussion.

Adaptation means taking on responsibility for those who live in dangerous areas. Through smart innovations in new home design and construction and advanced retrofits, people can be protected, live well and even save energy costs. 

In 2018, Hurricane Michael wrecked 60,000 homes causing $25 billion in total damages according to InsideClimate News. When that storm hit, Annette Rubin was at home with a newborn, healing from a C-section. Listening to the impact of the storm outside her home and fearing for her baby and her own life, Rubin started thinking about building code and how or if her home was going to protect her.

In a frantic state, she pulled out the house plans to see what the five-year-old home could withstand. It was built to the standard category three level winds that are building code in that area and the forecast was showing that Hurricane Michael was a more severe category five storm.

“I thought if it hits our house, we probably won’t make it,” she said. “We couldn’t leave. We couldn’t go down because of storm surge, and it wasn’t safe to go up. Luckily for us, it went over us and hit east of us, but it was traumatizing enough that I wanted to figure out a different way to do this because hurricanes aren’t new. They happen every year.”

After lots of due diligence, Rubin found a strong, sustainable panel system manufactured by Emmedue. Then, she took the next step. She started the company Vero Building Systems to be an owner and operator installing the Emmedue panel system.

With 77 plants around the world, the technology has been used and distributed for years, but Rubin is the first to bring it to Florida where it exceeds category 5 hurricane resistance and will be able to withstand up to 250-mile-per-hour winds.

Looking for a proof, she found the panels installed locally in a 7,000-square-foot home that has survived 3 hurricanes in 14 years.

“He lives a mile from me, has two times the size of our house and pays one-third the price for energy,” she said. “His energy bill is $300. Mine is double. There are no thermal bridges, so it is astronomically better than a traditional stick build.”

The core of the panels is polystyrene with steel wire mesh on both sides that are welded together for strength. Once the panel is put in place, a layer of shotcrete (a high velocity application of concrete) goes on top of the wire mesh to create a super insulated, strong structure. Plus, extra mesh goes around angles and to reinforce windows and doors.

VERO panels are not only sustainable when installed, but so is the manufacturing process. Rubin sources a petroleum-based polystyrene feed that is steamed using natural gas to compress it down. Plus, everything in the plant is recycled, from the beads to the wires, and the manufacturing has no off gassing.

“We are able to cut emissions by about 40% during an onsite installation,” Rubin said. “There is no heavy machinery. Plus, we cut about 60% of emissions over the lifetime of the building.”

Most of the work is in manufacturing the panels, that are very light and easy to install on site. Rubin estimates that VERO’s installation process could be up to 40% less time from traditional building methods.

“We did a whole house in two and a half days with installers speaking three different languages,” she said. “One installer had experience and two did not.”

With the energy savings and the added protection, the system has about a 5% premium compared to stick-built construction.

VERO ships nationwide and also is working on a package for tornado safe rooms, again with the capability to withstand more than 250-mph winds.

Protecting Homes… And Dollars

Some of the solutions that jurisdictions are exploring to help their communities are focused on reactive measures like evacuation plans and risk communications, along with proactive measures like new zoning, building codes, and improvements to the physical landscape.

These are hefty, include many different stakeholders to move forward, and therefore need long timelines to come to fruition. In today’s market, the longer the timeline, the more housing costs go up. So, more people are forced into migrating to the areas with the highest climate risks so they can find affordable housing options, which means that people not only need resilient housing, it has to be affordable as well.

crane delivering modular home in Uruguay.
This single-family modular house was delivered and installed in Marindia, Uruguay. JUAN NIN FOR VANTEM

Chris Anderson is the CEO at Greensborough, North Carolina-based, modular home building company Vantem that delivers a solution at only $100 per square foot. This product, backed by Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy fund, is made with refractory materials to be fire resistant, survives category 5 hurricane damage, and withstands up to 8.2 magnitude earthquakes.

To address the migration into coastal areas in Florida, Vantem acquired a plant in southern Georgia to build fast and efficiently.

“The homes are built like on an automotive construction line and all MEP [mechanical, electrical and plumbing] is already installed when it is delivered to the job site,” said Anderson. “The factory will be converted by early 2024, and we are looking at two other facilities to get to 20 plants over the next 10 years.”

Vantem is looking for joint ventures with local developers that have strong pipelines aimed at affordable housing in high risk climate markets.

Similar to VERO, Vantem is already accepted and well used around the world, with more than three million square feet currently built out across the globe. In the United States, Vantem has code approvals to build up to three stories.

Anderson says that even with the cost and process efficiencies, solutions can be customized on a large scale.

“We translate architecture into the Vantem system as fully engineered product for that market,” he said. “Each factory has a particular focus. If you are going to do a lot of multifamily, the factory is designed for that. There are factories specifically designed for single family, like the first in Georgia.”

At the core of Vantem’s efficiency and sustainability is the innovation of the panel.

“People who are doing high production modular worldwide are trying to standardize traditional process, but the better way to do it is to simplify the system,” Anderson said. “In modular, you have a water shed between 1 to 5 modules a day to 6 to 10, where high output usually requires a bigger capital expense, but they tried to automate a complex system. Automation applied to inefficiency, just magnifies inefficiency. Our capital expenses are one-fifth the cost of other modular factories.”

The Need For More Innovation

Housing risks of flood graphic
This forecast shows that more than 24 million American properties are at risk of flood today, which will increase 5% in the next 30 years. FIRST STREET FOUNDATION, 2023

Many reports show that the frequency and intensity of climate events will continue to increase. VERO and Vantem have fabulous solutions that will help many in the Florida region now, but as Zillow reports, unchecked greenhouse gas emissions could put 802,555 homes nationwide at risk from a 10-year flood by 2050. Not to mention the other climate disasters impacting the country.

Efforts like Ed Barsley’s Climate Creatives Challenge offer opportunities to reward innovation in support of new and novel approaches for communicating the impacts of climate change and the benefits of mitigation, adaptation and resilience. As the founder of The Environmental Design Studio, Barsley wants to unleash creative energy to communicate climate related themes to the public, along with adaptive actions.

The contest is a series of eight challenges and open for entries now, including prize money. Initiatives like this will spotlight the need, bringing much needed innovation forward.

Jennifer Castenson

I serve as the vice president of ambassador and industry partner programs at Buildxact, providing leadership and collaboration across the various verticals involved in custom homebuilding and remodeling and the industry stakeholders involved in order to guide relevant product solutions. Previously, I served as the vice president of programming at national media and data group Zonda.

Originally published on July 27, 2023

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