As hurricane season gets underway in the Atlantic and extreme heat waves batter the West, an obvious truth is worth repeating: The fundamental purpose of housing is to provide shelter from the natural world. But the reality is that as we confront a changing and volatile climate, millions of single-family and multifamily homes are unprepared for extreme natural hazards. One report found that 32 million homes in the United States are at risk from hurricanes alone.
But humans are adaptable. Think of COVID-19: When this invisible storm threatened homes and communities, we made changes once thought impossible. Jobs became remote, new technologies changed how we live and work, devoted commuters bought cars, and we as a society adapted to unexpected and extreme conditions. This is a lesson in resilience.
Single-family and multifamily housing used to be designed and built to consider natural weather conditions: Tall, operable windows brought in more natural light and air, color varieties improved residents’ mental health, and local building materials were chosen for their durability and adaptive qualities. Since World War II, however, housing has largely been an artificial construct, reliant on an abundant supply of mechanized systems that regulate internal temperature, humidity, and ventilation. The United States has nine distinct climate zones determined by regional variations in climate conditions. So, why do we find the same cookie-cutter housing stock across the country?
The short answer is that as the plastics industry expanded, so did the availability of cheap house finishings and coatings. Vinyl sheathing replaced brick, and plastic replaced wood. Millions of homes made from these materials were placed dangerously in flood plains, deserts, and other at-risk areas. Now, those deserts are getting drier and those flood plains wetter, and the housing stock cannot keep up.