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Selling safety

photo
[Times photos: Scott Keeler]
The fortified house by the Lehigh Group at Cypress Hollow, above and below, includes a garage door, the Weatherguard Plus, made of 27-gauge steel with 2 inches of insulation. It is able to withstand winds of 180 mph.

By JUDY STARK

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 21, 2000


Builders construct models of hurricane-resistant "fortified homes,'' but will buyers find them attractive and affordable?

Can builders construct a hurricane-resistant house that is safe, attractive and affordable, a home that doesn't look like a bunker or a fortress and isn't priced beyond consumers' pocketbooks?

And, if they build it, will you buy it?

We're about to find out.

Three model homes in different price ranges open their doors to visitors this morning. These are "fortified houses," built by Pinellas builders using materials and techniques that are believed to provide increased safety and security in case of hurricanes or other severe weather.

The fortified houses are among 46 models on display in the fall Gallery of New Homes, sponsored by the Contractors & Builders Association of Pinellas.

The three Pinellas homes are the first in the nation to be built under a pilot project created by the Institute of Business and Home Safety, a nonprofit group set up by the insurance industry. The idea was to determine how much increased safety and security features developed bythe institute added to the cost of a house.

Those features include:

  • Roof sheathing of 5/8-inch plywood rather than the usual half-inch.
  • More nails to fasten that sheathing.
  • A sealant, typically tape or foam, to seal gaps between those sheets of plywood and prevent leakage and water damage if shingles are blown off the roof, exposing the sheathing.
  • Stronger roof shingles.
  • Impact-resistant glass.
  • Reinforced garage doors.

Design carrots added to fortified homes' defensive stick
The fortified homes in the Contractors & Builders Association's Gallery of New Homes offer refreshing new elements inside and out.
The three homes are a three-bedroom masonry home with 1,735 square feet, built by J.M. Hoyt in a new subdivision, Bayside Oaks, near the Bayside Bridge in mid-Pinellas, priced at about $185,900; a 4,376-square-foot courtyard home by the Lehigh Group in a new subdivision called Cypress Hollow on McMullen-Booth Road in Safety Harbor, priced at $525,000; and a 4,200-square-foot home by Mark Maconi Homes in Wentworth, on East Lake Road, priced around $850,000.

Besides the hurricane-resistant features that are part of the business and home safety group's pilot program, the Lehigh and Maconi homes offer a "safe room," a highly reinforced interior room where residents could wait out a hurricane or a tornado.

The builders are walking a fine line as they unveil these homes.

"We in the construction industry have the ability and technology to build a structure that will withstand a hurricane, a tornado or a nuclear blast," said Rod Fischer, executive officer of the Contractors & Builders Association. "It is a question of cost. The building code needs to balance reasonable safety and reasonable cost."

The builders are concerned that the insurance industry will lean on the Legislature to make these building techniques mandatory rather than optional. "That would be disastrous to the affordable housing market if it were required," said Fischer.

"We have stressed all the way through: This is an optional package our builder members can offer at an additional cost. The homes we build are safe now. If you don't feel safe, are there things you can do? Sure. You can install a security system. You can move into a gated community if you so choose, but we are adamant about this: IBHS would love to mandate this, and we're not going down that road, but, for somebody who is concerned and has the money to spend, this is another alternative."

Builders worry that those who choose not to offer these materials and techniques will be put on the defensive.

"As builders, we agree with the idea," said Jim Rosenbluth, president of Shelter South, who worked with Hoyt to build the lowest-priced house, but he worries that the requirements "are being shoved down our throats, and we're being made to look like bad guys."

* * *

How much do these hurricane-resistant features add to the cost of each house?

It varies from house to house, of course, because there is a variety of materials in different price ranges that meet the standards.

The Stormfighter roof shingles by Tamko that Hoyt and Rosenbluth used, for example, cost $125 for a 10- by 10-foot "square." The dimensional shingles they ordinarily use cost $35 a square.

All three builders agreed that the increased labor costs were minor at best. The 5/8-inch plywood is a little heavier than half-inch, so framing crews can't carry as many sheets at a time. Additional nailing in the roof sheathing takes "another box of nails," Rosenbluth said, and a little more time.

The impact-resistant windows (a sheet of tough, invisible plastic laminated between two sheets of glass) are considerably heavier than normal windows. For Hoyt, it took two workers rather than one to install each window because of the increased weight and the additional fasteners required for each window.

His door and window package, he estimated, cost "a little over $10,000" compared with his typical cost of $2,500. A reinforced french door cost $1,000 compared with a typical sliding-glass door at $160.

The reinforced Weatherguard Plus garage door he and the others used -- 2 inches of insulation, 27-gauge steel, heavy-duty hardware, able to withstand a wind load of 180 mph (the code requires 102 mph) -- cost $2,020, compared with a typical garage-door price of about $600.

Overall, the requirements added about $15,000 to the price of the Hoyt house. This model, with the fortifications and other upgrades, is priced at $185,900 including homesite. Prices for home and lot in this subdivision start around $125,000.

* * *

The windows and doors in the Lehigh Group's model in Cypress Hollow were four to five times more expensive than usual, builder Tom Heironimus estimated.

"That would put them in the neighborhood of $30,000 installed," he said.

His house is the Gallery of Homes' masterpiece house. Lehigh will take no profit from its sale, and out of the proceeds the Contractors & Builders Association will make $10,000 grants to the Ronald McDonald House, a Safety Harbor literacy program and the Pinellas Education Foundation.

The price for the impact-resistant windows was "attention-getting," he acknowledged. In the two-story great room in the DeVille model, clerestory windows let in lots of light. That's a feature he specifically wanted to use to show that the fortification requirements do not preclude many of the dramatic architectural features buyers are looking for.

The Lehigh Group builds a lot of houses on the beaches. "And on the water, there I can see we will sell this product," Heironimus said. "If you live in an A or V zone" -- the high-wind zones nearest the water -- "I don't see how you can afford not to do this."

He pointed out the safe room, constructed as a closet in the master bathroom. It has independent footers and tie-downs, a steel-plated door, a steel plate above the drywall ceiling, 2- by 4-framing with solid concrete between the studs, and plywood sheathing and drywall on both sides.

"Is it expensive? Yes, but, relative to the windows, it's a more affordable type of item," he said, estimating the safe room cost $4,000.

"You have to pick your spots," he said. "Everything competes. Where do you want to spend your money and protect your investment?"

He used a slate-look roof made of cement and fiberglass and manufactured in Canada that he admits was "exorbitantly expensive" -- it cost $30,000. "It was an architectural statement choice as opposed to a safety requirement," he said. "I'm fascinated with the look of slate; that's why we chose it."

But there are plenty of other materials that would have qualified for the fortification requirements. "If I were recommending a roof for a client, the roof would cost $10,000," he said, which is about $2,000 more than a conventional roof.

* * *

"When people think of a hurricane-proof house, they think we're going to be in a bunker with no windows," said Mark Maconi as he walked through his model. "We've totally disproved that."

He pointed out the features: bay windows with mitered glass in the master suite and breakfast nook; a stained-glass window over the tub in the master bath (it's backed up with a sheet of impact-resistant glass). One set of 10-foot sliders had to be reduced to 8 feet to meet the fortification codes, and a dining-room window has a reinforcing muntin that will be disguised by the window treatments. "I don't feel we gave up anything aesthetically," he said.

Maconi estimates that his fortifications added $30,000 to $35,000 to the price of the house, or between 3 and 4 percent. About $20,000 of that was the cost of the windows.

Maconi said, "But buyers are going to say, "What else could I get for my $30,000? I could get the wine bar. I could get the granite countertops. I could get the wood floor. I could get the upgraded cabinets.' That's what you're competing with. The test of success is going to be how the public takes it."

Maconi, Hoyt and Heironimus all said the fortification materials and techniques created no construction delays or only minor ones in the building of the homes. "It was in the days, not in the weeks or months," Maconi said.

The biggest difficulty all three cited was delivery of the windows. All three homes' windows were made by PGT Industries of Nokomis, one of only two companies that provides such windows. The hope is that, if demand for impact-resistant windows grows, the supply will increase, thus decreasing the waiting time.

Maconi's safe room, just beyond the kitchen pantry, is furnished with cots, bottled water, a cooler, first-aid kit and battery-powered lanterns. There's also a mural of a window with an exterior view to make the place seem less claustrophobic while residents wait out a storm.

"It's also a place to lock valuables or to be safe if there were a home invasion," he said.

The impact-resistant windows, he believes, will appeal to buyers who regard them as something that provides value and security every day, not just the few days a year when a hurricane threatens. (They may also provide unanticipated benefits in a golf-course community.) "People relate more to that on a daily basis," he said.

Those who have never lived through a hurricane may have trouble appreciating the value of some of the fortification features. Maconi acknowledged that in his 50 years in Pinellas County he can recall "only one memorable storm event. That's a long time, and a lot of people haven't been faced with that."

* * *

If buyers do incorporate these techniques and materials into their homes, will the insurance industry make it worth their while with rebates on the cost of their windstorm insurance?

That's up to individual insurance companies, said Kevin Barber, a spokesman for the Institute of Business and Home Safety, and, of course, windstorm insurance is only part of the total insurance package on a home.

As for whether the fortification requirements will become part of the building code, "We're not thinking in terms of building codes as much as we are in terms of marketplace demand here," Barber said. "We think there is a growing interest among consumers for added protection of the kind the fortified program offers."

Fischer, the builders' spokesman, said, "I think the marketing of the fortified program needs to be carefully done so as not to lead people to believe they are unsafe. It's not a question of being safe or unsafe, but, "Can you do more to secure that peace of mind?"'

Fisher, who chairs the Pinellas Housing Finance Authority, added, "We are struggling to produce affordable housing here. I'd rather have someone in a house that's reasonably safe than ultimately safe if it means the difference in having a roof over their head."

Visiting the fortified homes

Here's where to see the three fortified houses described in this story. Like other models in the fall Gallery of Homes, they are open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday:

J.M. HOYT HOMES: The model is in the Bayside Oaks subdivision, at 16130 49th St. N, Clearwater, just north of Roosevelt Road. Information: (727) 538-5388.

LEHIGH GROUP: The model is in the Cypress Hollow subdivision on the east side of McMullen-Booth Road, about a half-mile north of Sunset Point Road, Safety Harbor. Information: (727) 712-3887.

MARK MACONI HOMES: The model is at 3405 Kensington Trace in the Wentworth subdivision in Tarpon Springs. It's on the west side of East Lake Road just south of Keystone Road. Information: (727) 786-1605.

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