Building in Harsh Environments: Key Strategies and Design Choices
All over the world, people build incredible structures in places where it’s hard to believe that humans can live at all. But the truth is that, when you’re building, your project doesn’t have to be in the middle of Death Valley to face challenges from your environment. Many millions of people worldwide live in places that are uniquely tough to build in.
Most harsh environments on Earth fall into one of a few common categories, and each has its own dangers for both the buildings and the builders. We’ll talk about some of the more common hazards of these environments, and we’ll also discuss how builders around the world take on these challenges. Through a combination of planning, communication and foresight, humans can create amazing things, even in places that are trying their best to prevent it.
Buildings in areas that get extremely cold have to be built with special care. Sealing in heat and air is a prime concern for these buildings, as are the contraction and expansion effects that come with heating a home in the cold:
As you might expect, good insulation with a high R-value is key for keeping a cold building warm, but it’s also important to get as much air sealing as possible. Not only are drafts a big source of heat loss, but the air migration can cause moisture vapor to condense inside walls, causing water damage.
Cold climate buildings with truss roofs are often vulnerable to truss uplift, the effect that happens when a roof truss receives uneven heating and starts to pull on the walls it’s attached to. Builders use special techniques to mitigate the stress on the plaster.
These roofs are also especially vulnerable to ice dams—leaks caused by the uneven heating of the roof that melts ice in some places but not others. This is usually best addressed in the planning phase, with roofs strategically designed to distribute heat evenly.
Most building in cold environments is done during the warmer seasons, but, even so, builders have to take extra care to make sure their workers are protected with durable cold-weather outerwear and insulated work gloves.
In one study, 57 percent of Americans said they’d prefer to live in a hotter climate than a colder one, so it’s crucial that buildings are able to stand up to the demands of the climates many people choose to live in. Some of the techniques that help them do that include:
The classic method for building a cooler home in a hotter climate is to design it with open spaces and good air circulation with the outside. However, that’s only feasible if other weather conditions permit. Many builders will instead use landscaping and design features like courtyards, water features and vegetation to serve as passive heat management features.
Dark shingle roofs soak up and retain huge amounts of heat, so many builders now use reflective roofing materials such as metal or lighter-colored shingles to keep roof temperatures cooler and conserve energy.
Hot weather buildings also need good insulation and air control to prevent cold air from escaping. Failure to properly control this can lead to energy inefficiency and an overworked AC unit.
Professionals working outside in hot environments also need to consider heat safety, especially since it can be tough to find the right compromise of comfort and protection in hot weather workwear. Workers also need to stay well-hydrated and protect their skin with sunscreen.
Humid and Wet Environments
Water is one of the most common sources of damage to a home, so it’s important that houses in wet, humid areas be built to withstand it. Much will depend on whether your climate is hot and wet or cold and wet, but here are a few of the most important general techniques:
Homes in areas prone to flooding will often be built using pier foundation designs. These “stilt houses” are better equipped to deal with floods, but they require a lot of floor insulation.
Buildings and landscaping will usually need to accommodate frequent precipitation and have a way to channel runoff away from a home’s foundations and other sensitive areas.
Flat roofs are more prone to water damage, because water pools and accumulates more easily, so many of these buildings will have roofs with a steeper pitch.
In homes with crawl spaces and mobile homes, many builders install a thick plastic sheet called a ground vapor barrier to control the flow of moisture from the ground into the house.
Finally, there’s the wind, which is another common source of damage to homes. While extreme wind events like tornadoes and hurricanes can sometimes overcome their best efforts, builders can still design structures that are exceptionally good at standing up to the wind:
Where possible, it’s important to design buildings with some kind of natural wind shelter or windbreak, such as vegetation or landforms like hills. That can mean working in harmony with the natural landscape or adding more vegetation and other man-made wind barriers.
Steel framing systems typically stand up to wind better than standard wood ones, and these are often reinforced with heavy-duty bolts and screws rather than the fasteners and staples that typically accompany wood frame houses.
Joints and corners are the points most prone to collapse from wind, so these will often be reinforced with additional building materials.
Tall buildings are more vulnerable to the effects of wind, so buildings in high-wind environments are sometimes lower to the ground and have fewer stories.
Pitched roofs are less likely to tear off during wind events than flat roofs, and so you’ll often see them used in windy environments.
Whether it’s the scorching deserts of Arizona, the pouring rain of the Pacific Northwest or the high winds of the Great Plains, the U.S. is full of challenging building environments. But, thanks to engineering ingenuity and the hard work of many builders, there are still ways to build strong, beautiful and functional buildings, even in the places that seem impossible.
Author Bio: Natalie Bucsko serves as the Marketing Communications Specialist for RefrigiWear. From the Dahlonega, GA headquarters, Natalie oversees all content, including the website, knowledge center, blog, catalog, email, and social media. Before joining RefrigiWear, Natalie worked as a Marketing Coordinator for several years at companies ranging from startups to insurance. She enjoys cooking and baking, sports, reading and spending time outdoors – especially when it is cold!