Program helps make coastal residences more FORTIFIED against storm damage

This home on Teal Drive in South Kingstown has been built to withstand storm damage.

This home on Teal Drive in South Kingstown has been built to withstand storm damage. Photos by Pam Rubinoff.

While many home buyers are drawn to living in coastal areas, that choice comes with certain risks. For many Rhode Island home and business owners, the issue of protecting their buildings from the elements is something that must be taken into consideration as a fact of coastal life. The FORTIFIEDTM program and associated standards is one option that coastal planning agencies in Rhode Island are exploring to increase the resilience of buildings along the coast. When storm damage caused Pam Rubinoff, extension specialist with the Coastal Resources Center and Rhode Island Sea Grant, both at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography, to need her roof replaced, she saw a perfect opportunity to try out the FORTIFIED system for herself.

The FORTIFIED Home – Hurricane designation of the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) consists of a set of standards designed to help improve a home’s resistance to damage from many different types of storms and weather conditions. These standards come in three different levels—Bronze, Silver, and Gold—each of which focuses on a different aspect of home reinforcement.

The FORTIFIED program has been used frequently in other areas of the United States where destructive storms are common, particularly the Gulf Coast, but is new in New England. Rubinoff works with staff from the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council, which was looking for projects to pilot the program when an early August storm blew two trees onto the roof of Rubinoff’s South Kingstown home. Suddenly, her work on coastal resilience became personal.

Strong winds brought down these trees onto the roof of Pamela Rubinoff, CRC and Sea Grant extension specialist.

Strong winds brought down these trees onto the roof of Pamela Rubinoff, CRC and Sea Grant extension specialist.

“Every time it rains now it’s like, oh my gosh, what’s happening?” she says, recounting the event. “Storms are getting more intense. And when I felt my house shake from 84-mile per hour winds, you really have to ask yourself what else is going to blow away.”

She realized that she had the unique opportunity to try out FORTIFIED for herself. “I don’t know what I would have done if I was just a regular homeowner, but I had enough information now from my work experience at URI to realize that there was a way that I could improve my roof to reduce my chances of impact from wind.”

Rubinoff decided on a Bronze-level FORTIFIED certification, as it specifically addresses a home’s roof system. FORTIFIED inspector Jeff Rhodin explains that the Bronze level focuses on three main aspects of a roof’s construction: using a grooved type of nail called a ring shank that more strongly holds the roof together (versus a typical smooth nail), making sure the roof is secured with a specific number of nails per square foot, and taping the seams between roofing panels to make them watertight. This is also the certification level that Rhodin says is most appropriate for improving existing structures because it involves replacing only the roof, as opposed to more fundamental structural elements of the home, and is also the least expensive level of certification to meet.

Rubinoff began the process of installing her FORTIFIED roof. She expressed interest in getting her certification through the IBHS’s website and was contacted by Rhodin, who is currently the only certified evaluator in the New England area. From there, they brought her builder, John Cass of Build It Better, into the process. As Rubinoff’s roof was the first FORTIFIED roof that both Rhodin and Cass had worked on, there were some kinks to work out. “Many emails and phone calls went back and forth between the builder, myself, and Jeff to make sure that when we were ordering products, that we were ordering the right ones. The kinds of nails, the kind of underlayment, the kind of plywood,” Rubinoff explains. “It was a lot of back and forth.” One unexpected hitch during the process of Rubinoff’s certification was when she realized that her gable vents needed to be modified to ensure that water didn’t enter the attic through the vent, in addition to her roof replacement.

In addition, Rubinoff’s roof had to be inspected to ensure that everything was being done correctly. “Jeff came down to visit after the plywood had been nailed down, and he actually measured the number of nails per foot to ensure it met the standard for securing the plywood decking to the rafters.”

Despite Rubinoff’s roof replacement being the most basic FORTIFIED certification level, Rhodin says that this upgrade can have a significant impact on protecting a home from storm damage. “Most of the damage done in these storms is because the roofs fail, water gets in and then the water does all the damage. So if you keep the roof in place, then the water doesn’t get in and people don’t have as much damage,” he says. In addition, he says, the Bronze certification is relatively inexpensive if a roof needs to be replaced anyway. He explains that there are minimal costs for additional building materials, and the additional labor is only a few hours.

Meanwhile, builder Dave Caldwell is working on a new high-end home in South Kingstown that is built to FORTIFIED standards—also the first of its kind in New England. In addition to the Bronze level’s focus on the roof, the house Caldwell is building will have all required FORTIFIED upgrades up to the Gold level, which includes the roof upgrades of Bronze and the features added by the Silver level, which mainly ensures that all the openings to a building are built to a higher standard.

Jeff Rhodin inspects the FORTIFIED home on Teal Drive.

Jeff Rhodin inspects the FORTIFIED home on Teal Drive.

The main additional component of Gold certification is that the house is designed to have a continuous load path. Rhodin explains that this is basically a way of saying that a structural engineer has designed the home in a way that all parts of it are solidly connected to each other—the roof, walls, floor, and foundation.

There are several ways to achieve this, explains Rhodin—for example, using impact-resistant glass, hurricane shutters, or Kevlar protective screening. All of these components have to be overseen and verified by a certified FORTIFIED inspector. Rhodin notes that attaining Silver and Gold certifications does require a more significant extra expense. In particular, he notes that impact-resistant windows like the ones used in this project are twice as expensive as normal windows. Such windows are likely to add an extra $10,000 to $30,000 to the building cost, depending on the project size.

Tree removal

Workers remove a tree from Rubinoff’s roof.

Measuring nails

Rhodin measures the distance between nails in Rubinoff’s roof.

Rubinoff says that her new roof and Caldwell’s house have provided a valuable test-run for the FORTIFIED program in Rhode Island. Rhodin considers these first projects important learning experiences. He wants to see the program expand and continue to become more user friendly, saying that one of his main goals is to continue to streamline the process for his clients. He aims to better lay out exactly what builders and homeowners can expect during the certification process, and try to minimize costs by limiting the number of inspection visits required.

In the meantime, the state is exploring incentives for homeowners to invest in programs like FORTIFIED. Rubinoff says that the CRMC is considering making FORTIFIED a factor in permit fees and review timelines. For homeowners considering improvements to their homes, Rubinoff says that she hopes to see FORTIFIED become a way that homeowners can reduce their insurance costs. She says, “I’ve contacted Amica, my insurer, to ask how this could be incorporated so that my insurance could be reduced. And they said that they already reduce insurance for certain wind mitigation approaches and anticipate developing an element to reduce rates for improved roofs on existing homes certified as FORTIFIED – Hurricane Bronze.”

Bryan Cook, senior assistant vice president of Amica’s sales and client services department, says that his company does offer discounts on premiums for certified new houses that could be up to 17 percent. Stephen Neri, an agent for Allstate Insurance in Rhode Island, says that although Allstate does not offer discounts on premiums for the FORTIFIED Program at this time, certain home upgrades may lower deductibles for storm damage. However, he says that the main advantages to a program like FORTIFIED are a reduction in claims, increased safety, and the peace of mind that comes with knowing that your home is better prepared to withstand a major storm.

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By Keegan Glennon | Rhode Island Sea Grant Communications Intern

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