Going Green and Building Strong

We are a nation of homeowners—over two-thirds of our population lives in owner-occupied housing, representing more than 76 million housing units. The median U.S. home is 32 years old, and valued at just under $200,000. Through retrofitting, older homes can become both more energy efficient and disaster resistant. This is a winning situation for everyone involved, in fact, President Obama has called retrofitting houses to make them better “sexy.”

Over the past year, much of the positive attention that has been accorded home retrofitting has focused on energy efficiency, including provisions of the Economic Stimulus Act and proposals for a “Cash for Caulkers” (also known as the Home Star) program. But there is another, equally important aspect of home “weatherization” — making homes stronger so that they are better able to withstand natural perils such as hurricanes, tornadoes, freezing weather, and hail.

Legislation (S. 2818) recently introduced by Sen. George Lemieux (R-FL) would amend existing tax credits for energy-related home retrofitting to allow for pre-disaster hazard mitigation home improvements. Specifically, the bill would increase the amount of allowable expenditures available to low income homeowners, from $6,500 to $8,500, for home retrofit projects which would result in both energy efficiency and disaster resistance improvements. This is an excellent example of “going green and building strong,” as discussed below.

Benefits of Retrofitting for Energy and Strength

  • Weatherization that lowers energy consumption and increases disaster protection compounds potential savings for homeowners. Separate from any savings on energy costs, a study by the Multi-hazard Mitiga¬tion Council (MMC) for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) found that every $1spent on loss prevention saves society (individuals, states and communities) an average of $4 in future reduced losses.

  • Certain retrofit improvements — such as replacing primary windows and doors with those that are both energy efficient and wind resistant — are dual purpose, and thus most cost-effective. When an existing roof requires replacement, it can be done with a roof that offers both disaster resistance and energy efficiency (by reducing peak cooling demand by 10-15 percent).

  • Similarly, the process of inspecting for energy problems offers the opportunity to identify mitigation gaps as well. For example, sealing energy leaks that are found through an inspection can help make a house more air tight (and hence more energy efficient), while also increasing its wall strength and ability to withstand high winds.

  • Protecting homes from being destroyed by disasters also helps the environment by preventing the resulting debris from being added to local landfills. For example, following the disastrous 2008 floods in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, more than 80,000 tons of debris were collected and removed, resulting in a huge drain on energy and resources for the rebuilding process.

  • Like energy efficiency improvements, retrofitting to improve disaster resistance helps to boost the economy by putting contractors to work and through the purchase of building supplies. These economic benefits will occur at the local level, primarily because this type of home hardening is dependent upon familiarity with local weather conditions and appropriate building codes.


  • Incorporating mitigation into the home weatherization program can avoid the unintended consequences of “green” building initiatives that actually undermine disaster resistance. For example, planting trees on a roof may reduce carbon emissions but also can create projectiles in high-wind areas and become a fuel source for wildfire, thus increasing a home’s vulnerability. The most comprehensive approach to weatherization will take into account all aspects of weather, not just temperature, as part of the retrofitting process.

  • When retrofitting for disaster resistance, it is important to adopt a systems approach that protects the entire building envelope: the roof, walls, and all windows and doors. This is necessary to assure the home’s structural integrity in the face of hurricane force winds and other perils. By contrast, an à la carte approach (e.g., replacing a large picture window but not other windows and doors) may not reduce damage, instead shifting the vulnerability where the building envelope can be breached.

  • For disaster protection, there is no government-approved rating system, such as the ENERGY STAR label. However, the Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS), has conducted extensive research and identified effective retrofitting measures for the major weather events, all of which are freely available at disastersafety.org. Additionally, IBHS’ FORTIFIED Home™ program is a means through which home-owners can achieve an even higher degree of disaster resistance through retrofitting.

Next Steps

  • In calling for enactment of a Cash for Caulkers/Home Star program in 2010, President Obama expressed the desire to work with Congress on the details.

  • Sen. LeMieux’s bill offers an excellent model for integrating disaster resistance and energy efficiency to achieve a more full realization of the goal of weatherization.

  • At the same time, care must be taken to assure that green initiatives do not inadvertently undermine disaster protection, but instead provide the means of “going green and building strong.”


1 “Going Green and Building Strong” was the subject of the Institute for Business & Home Safety’s (“IBHS”) recent academic/public policy conference. Copies of presentation materials are available at /conference.
2 National Association of REALTOR®, Median Sales Price of Existing Single Family Homes, 4Q 2009, available at www.realtor.org.