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Crisis Response Journal Crisis Response Journal

Modular system for blast-resistant, storm-proof buildings

Posted on 23rd September 2016 at 16:14pm

When Superstorm Sandy made landfall on October 29, 2012 and blistered across the East Coast, taking down half a million homes and billions of dollars of damages with it, it became the second most expensive cyclone to hit the United States since 1900, according to the US National Hurricane Center. But from the black clouds emerged this silver lining: In the storm’s expensive aftermath, the federal government decided to take a closer look at how communities’ resilience could be improved. For Lillian Tseng and her colleagues at Universal Praxis, that notion of resilience holds tremendous promise.

The modular steel construction of the buildings is designed to make them blast-resistant, fire-rated, insulating and resistant to extreme weather (all images: Universal Praxis/Olin)

Universal Praxis is a Denver-based construction start-up launched by Tseng’s mother, Tiffany Phillips, who holds patents on a modular steel construction system that is blast-resistant, fire-rated, insulating and resists extreme weather.

The technology is inspired by a product developed by Tseng’s grandfather, who used it to build correctional and oil field facilities in the 1980s. Now Tseng and her team are refining the technology to make it accessible for homeowners, among other purposes.

“Building an entire home to be tornado-resistant is just the baseline of what is possible,” she says. With their modular system, it’s no more complicated to build a home or a church or a school or an office building. “Imagine if your town’s entire infrastructure were built to withstand almost any disaster, whether natural or manmade,” she says.

Understood as the capacity to plan for, absorb and reduce the impact of adverse events, the idea of resilience bounced around the construction space, albeit under the radar, for a few decades. The number and intensity of natural disasters, paired with rising concerns about climate change, have helped bring it to the forefront.

Central to the concept is the sense that a building’s cost analysis shouldn’t end at construction and lifecycle costs: Recovery costs have to be part of the equation. And when they are, Tseng says, it’s increasingly clear that traditional construction methods lack sustainability over the long term. Look at Joplin, in Missouri, USA, for example, where a 2011 tornado swept through the town and killed 160 people. The city had considered requiring storm shelters in new or rebuilt homes but decided that doing so would be cost prohibitive. A full 30 per cent of the town was flattened in the tornado’s path.

Building to withstand a hurricane or tornado using traditional construction methods can be expensive, says Tseng. According to FEMA’s 320 and 361 safe room standards, the walls of a structure need to withstand a projectile at 250mph. Using concrete is the best way to accomplish that, she says, but at $20 to $40 per square foot – compared to $12 per square foot for stick-frame construction – that’s just not reasonable for most homeowners.

The Universal Praxis panels are steel, fit together like Lego bricks, and cost less to install and maintain than concrete, Tseng says (homes can have brick, stucco, wood, or any traditional finish, so they look like any other house.) Wiring and ductwork can be installed at the factory, so prefabricated panels arrive on site ready to be assembled. “We call it a supercharged workflow,” Tseng says.

Policymakers and industry leaders around the globe are taking notice of resilient construction strategies, given increasing concern about climate change. The UN is developing guidelines for resilient construction through the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. The 2015 Department of Homeland Security’s National Preparedness Report and the President’s Climate Action Plan both urge improving the resilience of community infrastructures. The American Institute of Architects has rallied around resilience as a critical concern of our time, calling it: “The new green.” Even the insurance industry is on board. “About 10 years ago, my mom said that for anything to change, the insurance industry would have to get behind it. Today, the insurance companies are going after resilience,” Tseng continues.

All of which is promising news for Universal Praxis, says Tseng, who hopes to see the technology licensed within the industry. With so many directions where the product could go, she says it’s been important for her team: “To maintain a strong and cohesive visions of what we are working to achieve.”

Maintaining that vision is a skill she picked up at the Olin College of Engineering, through multidisciplinary projects and teamwork. She may not be using her electrical and computer engineering background every day on the job, but in true start-up fashion she does a bit of everything. And in that variety: “I find that the engineering mindset that I learned at Olin has been tremendously helpful,” she says. 

Reproduced with permission from Olin College of Engineering, full story here 

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