The scope of the damage to mobile home parks and older neighborhoods along America's hurricane-ravaged coasts is enormous. More than 15,500 homes were destroyed in Texas alone, and the count hasn't even begun in Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands.
The homeowners who plan to stay face a choice: They can rebuild what they had before, knowing the warming climate will bring more devastating storms, or they can build for energy efficiency and resilience. The decision often comes down to cost, but an innovative type of post-disaster construction is creating new options.
In the Asheville, North Carolina, offices of Deltec Homes—one of several builders of prefabricated, energy efficient houses—the phones have been ringing insistently with questions about the hurricane-resistant, net-zero-energy homes the company manufactures and ships around the world. The homes are designed to reduce energy loss and are built ready for solar panels to allow customers to go off-grid and still power up when the grid goes down in a storm.
The company has seen a rise in interest in the past month, from the Virgin Islands and the Florida Keys in particular, company President Steve Linton said. "It's an insane jump," he said.
Nearly a decade ago, net-zero-energy homes were rare, usually custom-built for wealthy homeowners who wanted to incorporate energy efficient appliances and rooftop solar panels. Now, that's starting to shift: within the last year, the zero-energy home market has grown 33 percent, said Shilpa Sankaran, executive director of the Net-Zero Energy Coalition.
"That's a tiny fraction of new home construction, but in terms of growth, we're seeing the kind of numbers solar saw in its early days in 2011 and 2012," she said.
For that market to really take off, net-zero homes have to become cheaper—particularly in low-income communities, which are disproportionately affected by extreme weather. That's a challenge companies like Deltec are trying to meet by designing modular, prefabricated, net-zero homes that reduce energy usage, cut costs and can withstand extreme weather and power outages.
"Nobody wants to see a repeat of damage that's been done [by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria], and scientists said certainly it was worse because of climate change," Sankaran said. "If that's the case, not only do we need buildings that won't exacerbate the problem, but also ones that last longer."
Vermont's Zero-Energy Storm Recovery
Prefabricated, zero-energy homes became a go-to storm response in Vermont after Hurricane Irene in 2011.
The storm's remnants dumped as much as 11 inches of rain in some areas and flooded hundreds of buildings. Mobile home parks were the hardest hit: more than 500 were damaged or destroyed. While they only make up 7 percent of Vermont's housing stock, mobile homes comprised 15 percent of those damaged during the storm.
After the floodwaters receded, a group of local developers and affordable housing experts launched Vermod, a company that designs and builds affordable zero-energy modular homes, to help low-income communities recover from the storm.
"That storm was a really valuable catalyst to action for these issues simmering in the back of people's minds, but weren't taking precedence," said Phoebe Howe, program coordinator for Efficiency Vermont, an organization that worked with Vermod to finance and design the homes.
Using eco-friendly materials and energy efficient appliances, the company built modest, modular net-zero energy homes to replace 75 mobile homes around the state. An average two-bedroom, two-bathroom home costs around $115,000 if the buyers qualify for certain incentives and tax credits, Howe said.
Last year, Vermod revamped an abandoned mobile home park, building net-zero homes that it rented out to 14 low-income families. It's also helping a developer in Delaware work on a similar modular home project.
The case for going net-zero is convincing for many lower-income people, who can spend up to 35 percent of their budget on home energy expenses, Howe said. The bigger issue is convincing developers to shift their business models.
Howe said Vermod's projects are easily transferrable to other states; they're primarily funded through U.S. Department of Agriculture rural development grants and various housing trust funds. For areas like the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, where entire communities are destroyed and parts of the grid are down indefinitely, that model could be a way to rebuild in a cheaper, more climate-friendly and resilient way.
Tricks to Energy Efficiency in Pre-Fab Homes
With so much need for new housing, net-zero-energy homebuilders are increasing their outreach to hurricane-damaged regions.
Deltec is trying to establish a bigger presence in hurricane-prone areas like coastal Texas. In Lawrence, Kansas, a company called BuildSmart is seeing a higher demand for its prefabricated wall panels, in part because many local builders are leaving to work on projects along the Gulf Coast. Other developers of zero-energy, prefabricated homes have cropped up in the last few years, from California to Minnesota to Florida.
Prefabricated homes are manufactured in a factory then assembled on-site. In this controlled indoor setting, builders avoid weather that could harm building materials or slow construction time. Windows and corners can be made to fit together more precisely, boosting energy efficiency. And there's potential to manufacture homes by the hundreds, rather than one at a time.
Deltec's prefabricated zero-energy homes have thick walls that reduce the amount of energy lost through windows and cracks — where 25 to 40 percent of a typical home's energy is wasted, Linton said. Usually, they're built with passive solar and energy storage systems attached, or wired and oriented to be solar-ready for when a customer can afford to make the jump off-grid. The net-zero collection uses two-thirds less energy than a typical home, with the remaining third provided by solar or other renewable energy production.
"It's built at a standard that's going to essentially last for hundreds of years compared to decades for a stick-built home," Linton said, adding that he hopes the recent hurricanes "wake people up to the realities of what we have to design against."
Encouraging a Shift to Zero-Energy Homes
To catalyze the growth in energy efficient housing, there's been a recent push for zero-energy building codes at both the state and city levels: California's goal is to have all new residential buildings be net-zero by 2020; Massachusetts is requiring all new buildings to be 100 percent net-zero-energy and existing buildings to cut emissions by half by 2030.
Meeting these ambitious climate goals will take an economic and cultural shift, industry experts say. For instance, banks have to be willing to offer home loans to cover the upfront costs of net-zero-energy development, said Joe Emerson, founder of nonprofit Zero Energy Project. Better incentives for rooftop solar and cheaper energy storage will also help make net-zero-energy homes an affordable option.
"It's absolutely possible to do this in coastal regions and hurricane and earthquake regions," Sankaran said. "It's not rocket science, it just needs to be part of the process."