5 Rules to Follow When Selecting Building Materials for Extreme Environments


Material selection is one of the factors that can spell the difference between the success and failure of construction projects in harsh environments. 

The growing number of products on the market is a blessing for architects — you enjoy more latitude in designing a climate-resistant and occupant-friendly building. However, it can also be a curse. Too many choices can lead to analysis paralysis.

Follow these five rules to narrow down your options and nail the apt material combination to design a durable, resilient, safe and healthy structure for its environment.

1. Note specific natural hazards

5 Rules to Follow When Selecting Building Materials for Extreme Environments

Identify the specific climatic headaches prevalent in a location. Frigid temperatures bring about heavy snowfall, slippery surfaces and high heating loads. Oppressive heat is synonymous with prolonged mugginess and intense ultraviolet radiation.

In coastal regions, rising sea levels can inundate waterfront properties, salt air can corrode inland structures' metallic components and salt crystallization can structurally compromise masonry. Massive flooding and moisture are constant threats in low-lying areas.

Hurricane-prone towns regularly experience downpours, flash floods and violent wind events. Buildings in Tornado Alley are susceptible to supercell thunderstorms, which carry golf ball-sized hail, powerful downdrafts, menacing gusts and destructive flying debris with them.

Properties constructed near faultlines and on soft soil are more likely to collapse due to the acute vibrations from ground shaking when an earthquake occurs. Seismic events in mountainous and hilly locations can cause landslides and avalanches. Drought can shrink local water resources, wreak havoc on energy systems and heighten the risk of various natural disasters.

Even places that generally experience relatively mild weather are subject to catastrophes. Lightning-induced wildfires — which can happen without a thunderstorm if there's a volcanic eruption or a surface nuclear detonation — can ravage greenbelts and encroach on populated areas. Little vegetation can intensify temperature levels in urban climates, increasing the chances of frequent heat waves.

Anticipate every single way the elements can adversely affect your building's structural integrity and safety matters. Determining the materials optimized to neutralize the worst Mother Nature can throw at your structure is a must.

2. Think long-term

5 Rules to Follow When Selecting Building Materials for Extreme Environments

The Bolder Lodges by Snøhetta - Photography: Henrik Moksnes

Consider how extreme weather conditions may worsen over time. Climate change makes natural disasters more catastrophic and frequent when unmitigated. Basing your material choices on today's standards is ill-advised when designing a climate-resilient building.

Stay current with the latest research on this subject to know about regional weather trends and predict an area's climate decades into the future. Also take time to contemplate the limitations of various building materials' physical properties. Even products engineered to withstand the harshest environmental conditions will ultimately lose what allows them to fit the bill.

3. Familiarize yourself with regulations

Picture the ideal building materials through the eyes of local building code authors. You can go above and beyond regulators' expectations but never fall short, so determine your target minimum requirements.

In jurisdictions that are no strangers to extreme weather, city councils and county commissions don't embrace the International Code Council's model codes and standards without much amendment. These policymakers impose more stringent building requirements on construction professionals to minimize property damage and save lives during calamities.

There's no better example than the one used in South Florida's High-Velocity Hurricane Zone (HVHZ), covering Miami-Dade and Broward. These counties bear the brunt of storms, so they require the entire envelope of buildings to have a laboratory-tested, wind-resistant design to remain in one piece when disaster strikes.

The HVHZ code keeps up with the times, especially when test methods prove ineffective. Dropping FM 4471 Appendix G's criteria as a basis for permitting standing seam metal roofing systems is an excellent case in point.

Design professionals review building codes all the time. These technical standards don't explicitly say which products to procure but reveal insights into the minimum performance expected of construction materials. Use them as your guide, and never let your design intent come first to ensure regulatory compliance.

4. Observe what others use

5 Rules to Follow When Selecting Building Materials for Extreme Environments

Shanghai Tower by Gensler

Draw inspiration from existing buildings. Old and new properties can be good or bad role models, demonstrating what works and what doesn't. Most architects travel and explore buildings for fun, but some underestimate the activity's usefulness in business.

Drive by similar properties near your project site to see actual code-compliant examples. If you can, tour the interiors. Buy a drink at a local coffee shop, walk around a mall or dine at a fast food restaurant — whatever you need to take a closer look at a commercial space similar to the one you need to design.

Visit real estate listing sites and cruise neighborhoods to find open houses. Roaming around an aging house that has withstood countless extreme weather events and remained structurally sound can be a treasure trove of information.

For instance, finding many houses that use rubber garage flooring without evidence of mold and mildew highlights the material's anti-fungal properties and underscores its utility in a hot and humid climate. The same logic applies to residences with mostly intact decades-old brick siding in areas insurers consider significantly prone to hail and wind damage.

Mimicking best practices is wise, but there's always room for improvement. Materials science is a hyper-active field, so there are always innovations. For example, nanotechnology is pushing the envelope in engineering and has paved the way for a novel breed of building solutions, like self-healing concrete.

Many advanced materials lack or reduce their traditional counterparts' negatives and elevate a property's weather resistance and climate resilience.

5. Listen to the prevailing public sentiment

5 Rules to Follow When Selecting Building Materials for Extreme Environments

Bambu Atmosfera by Perkins&Will

Put a premium on contemporary sensibilities. The terrifying specter of climate change fuels the sustainability movement, promoting environmentally conscious practices beyond decarbonization.

Circular materials — reclaimed, refurbished, remanufactured or recycled — are sustainable. Options derived from renewable sources — such as hempcrete, straw, bamboo, cork and microalgae — also fall into the green category. Some energy-efficient inventions, like aerogel insulation, have graduated from experimental to commercially viable. 

Finding the most eco-friendly, locally sourced construction materials that withstand extreme weather conditions is a recipe for success.

Don't break these material selection rules

Extreme environments aren't as forgiving as mild climates. These rules exist as guides, not suggestions. Follow them at all costs to make your job easier and avoid costly mistakes.

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