Last One Standing

What can we learn from the house that survived Hurricane Michael?

Architecture East
What can we learn from the house that survived Hurricane Michael? Pictured: A screenshot of the New York Times interactive map of Mexico Beach that showed Dr. Lackey his house was still standing after Hurricane Michael. (AN/Courtesy New York Times)
What can we learn from the house that survived Hurricane Michael? Pictured: A screenshot of the New York Times interactive map of Mexico Beach that showed Dr. Lackey his house was still standing after Hurricane Michael. (AN/Courtesy New York Times)

Amidst the destruction wreaked by Hurricane Michael on the 1,200-person town of Mexico Beach, Florida, one house emerged from the 155-mph winds relatively unscathed. As the New York Times reported, the 3-story house built by Dr. Lebron Lackey and his uncle Russell King was the only one remaining on his beachfront block and one of the few left standing in the flattened landscape of the Florida Panhandle town. The house, ironically dubbed the “Sand Castle” and designed by architect Charles A. Gaskin, was completed just this year.

Florida windstorm code for this part of the state requires houses to be built for 120-mph winds, but the Sand Castle was designed for 240 to 250-mph winds. The entire house was built on top of 40-foot-tall pilings to allow for storm surge, and its walls are made of poured concrete reinforced by rebar, with steel cables throughout the structure and extra concrete reinforcing the house’s corners. Rather than privilege window views, an expected feature of a vacation home, the number of window openings was limited and the roof overhang was minimized, thus reducing the risk of winds lifting the entire roof off. Lackey told CNN that other features that he and his uncle had originally wanted, like a balcony, were also discouraged by their engineer.

The Sand Castle house (Courtesy Sand Castle Facebook page)

In the end, the damage sustained by the house was the loss of an outdoor stair, which, along with the siding covering it, was designed to tear off without harming the rest of the building. The ground floor pavers and entryway features were also ripped away, along with a window and a heating unit, and water damage is evident in the building, according to the house’s Facebook page. But, as Lackey and King told the Times, these repairs are estimated to take a month. This is far from the case for the rest of the town, which took the hardest hit from the storm and has lost many of its older structures, built before the 2002 code was put into place.

Still, for most of Mexico Beach, a largely working-class community, the cost of hurricane-proofing the way that Lackey and King did would have been prohibitive. The measures implemented in the Sand Castle home double the cost of construction per square foot, according to the architect.

The quiet town, which has eschewed major waterfront development and prohibited structures taller than five stories, now faces the hard task of rebuilding or making the painful choice to leave the area entirely. The long road to recovery raises the familiar questions that Hurricanes Andrew, Irma, and Harvey have also provoked in recent years. Those who rebuilt after Irma, for instance, have had a hard time finding enough experienced contractors to rebuild to code and local inspectors to check their work, with many still waiting for FEMA assistance and insurance payouts. With FEMA’s budget cut by $10 million and transferred to ICE this summer, the path ahead might be even longer.

For architects, their role in designing homes that can withstand extreme weather events is perhaps more urgent than ever. Last year, of the roughly 800,000 single-family homes that were built, only 8 percent had concrete frames, a feature that would help them withstand such weather conditions. In ten years, only about 8,000 homes have met the insurance industry standard for a roof that wouldn’t leak or tear off during a hurricane. Homeowners may understand the importance of building resilient homes, but the incentive for developers is much lower. Scaling up the innovations for resilient new construction while keeping them affordable is perhaps the field’s greatest challenge.

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