By Liz Burlingame
If an extremely powerful tornado drops down on a home, there's not a lot that can be done. The standard, wood-frame house just isn't built to withstand winds of that speed, as seen in pictures of tornado-ravaged towns.
But what if your home could protect itself from storms by sinking underground at the first sign of danger?
That's a concept being developed by Hong Kong-based architecture firm 10 Design. With the aid of hydraulics, solar power and a high performance shell, the tornado-proof house retracts into the ground during a twister and out of harm's way.
The project initially started as a way to redesign the trailer park and evolved into a new suburban concept for tornado zones in the Midwest, said Ted Givens, a design partner at 10 Design. The design could also open up a range of possibilities for applications in other disaster scenarios — from typhoons in the Philippines to fires in Malibu.
"I believe there's a responsibility among architects to design buildings that are aware of their own natural surroundings," Givens said. "There's nothing accidental about these storms — they're going to come — and the buildings should be responsive."
Part of the concept is based on kinetic ideas found in garage doors, portable campers and sail boat hulls. Equipped with high-tech mechanisms for tornado evasion and flood resistance, the building is able to change positions in order to avoid damage. Hydraulic levers are activated by high-velocity winds that pull the house into the ground to safety. Once the home retreats, the pre-cast concrete roof locks to make it water, wind and even fire-proof. After the weather clears, the house unfolds and residents resume normal life.
The design team imagines a future where entire neighborhoods of these sci-fi sleek houses are constructed in tornado-prone areas. Each house's sensory data informs the rest of the neighborhood, offering a network of early warnings for oncoming storms.
"They will cost a bit more, but if you look at the replacement value of a house and lives [saved], it will be well worth it," Givens said. A preliminary cost study found the homes would run about $300,000 per single unit. However, Givens expects the price could drop significantly after the team simplifies the design, and if multiple units are produced.
10 Design has been in talks with engineering firm Buro-Happold to help engineer the project, and is seeking private funding for a prototype. The latest prototype design includes 900 square feet of space, with an additional 400 square feet below ground for gardens and storage space. Sites have already been secured in Nebraska and South Carolina for testing.
Despite the project's futuristic feel, it could be as few as two years before the tornado house is on the market, Givens said.
"There's one Chinese manufacturer that's actually built a few prototypes of his own," Givens explained. "He's doing these steel boxes so we're trying to hybridize that into something together. It's still a fluid process of developing the design and then trying to secure the funding, but there are a lot of entrepreneurs out there that are quite interested."
Dr. Tanya Brown, a program manager at Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS), said it's an interesting idea that aims to use new innovation to take advantage of a concept that's been around for decades: to seek shelter underground in the event of a tornado. IBHS, based in Rock Hill, S.C., helps to make buildings more resistant to hurricane damage and creates disaster safety plans for homeowners and businesses.
"However, with new things like this, there's always additional questions: What if the hydraulic systems fail when you need them? How do you guarantee water-tightness so you don't flood the underground community? And is this even economically feasible? And would people be willing to live in spaces like this? It will be interesting to see how the designers attempt to address these issues," Brown said.
Weather.com meteorologist Chris Dolce said that if the project is successful, it has the potential to protect life and property. "That said, increasing the number of underground tornado shelters available to those in tornado-prone locations would also be beneficial for saving lives," he added.
Beyond the tornado house, 10 Design has been designing other weather-related concepts such as office buildings that purify urban air by using passive solar and nanotechnology. The coating is currently being applied to an office project in Shenzhen China, which is expected to open in the next three years.