Looking at a brochure from Deltec Homes feels like watching an episode of HGTV’s “House Hunters” — beachfront homes with ornate patios and panoramic windows overlooking pristine ocean views.
It’s hard to believe that the same quaint, debonair homes are built to withstand Mother Nature’s ultimate test — a Category 5 hurricane.
It’s something they’ve done before, and will inevitably do again. And in an era marked by strengthening storms and rising seas due to climate change, Deltec Homes has made a business of building for the extreme.
Engineering for calamity
Deltec is one of a number of companies that designs, builds and sells custom hurricane-proof homes. The group was born in the 1950s when two brothers — one an engineer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the other an entrepreneur — began experimenting with the idea of marketing homes designed to survive the inconceivable. Since then, Deltec has contributed to the design installation of more than 5,000 homes worldwide.
Unlike other hurricane-proof homes, which are typically modular and often bunkerlike, Deltec’s homes are custom-built. It designs each structure at its facilities in Asheville, N.C., contracting out with local builders to assemble the final product to the customer’s wishes.
“Each home that we build is essentially custom-designed using a series of what we call building blocks,” said Steve Linton, an engineer and the president of Deltec Homes. “There are 10 sizes of those panoramic homes. People can design whatever they want and connect them with other structures.”
Older residents may prefer single-story, elongated ranch-style homes, while others may want a three-floor beach house with lots of natural light and windows facing the water. Deltec has refined its engineering over the years to be able to do it all. That has meant a lot of time at the drawing board.
“Obviously, the shape matters,” Linton said. “It’s a round home. It’s aerodynamic to the point you get about 30 percent less pressure that builds up against a Deltec home versus a conventional home.”
In other words, the shape of the house helps deflect air flow around the structure rather than absorb that force, no matter which way the wind is coming from.
“The second piece is the materials that go into the home,” Linton said. “We look at optimizing the materials … to all be about twice as strong as in a typical home. Every board is tested for strength. The plywood is twice as strong, and the metal connections we use are made in a completely different fashion.”
Understanding structural vulnerabilities
Joints and connections are typically a failure point in structure when they are subjected to high winds. That’s seen especially often in surveying the damage left by tornadoes. Poorly anchored roofs take off when wind passes overhead, lifting like airplane wings in response to relative low pressure generated over the structure. After that, it’s only a matter of time before exterior walls fail, leaving the bones of the house susceptible to flying debris.
Deltec’s homes have encountered such top-tier hurricanes as Michael, a Category 5 that hit the Big Bend of Florida on Oct. 10, 2018, and Dorian, which lay siege to the northwestern Bahamas in early September 2019. Most have fared well, escaping with minimal damage.
Josh Morgerman, among the world’s top hurricane chasers and star of UKTV’s and BBC’s “Hurricane Man,” became a brand ambassador for Deltec after surviving the eyewall, the zone of strongest winds, as high as 185 mph, of Hurricane Dorian on Great Abaco Island. He had heard that the homes built by Deltec were still standing after the storm. He had to learn more.
“At first, I was very skeptical,” he said. “But they gave me a very detailed Excel spreadsheet that was pages long of where their houses are along the Gulf Coast and the Bahamas. I found the ones that had gone through the eyewalls of [Categories] 4 and 5, and some that had perfect direct hits. There were a few that went through Dorian’s right-front quadrant of the eyewall. I reached out to the homeowners and interviewed them.”
Morgerman learned that most homes emerged with only minor scratches and dings, primarily cosmetic damage.
“Those houses had survived the ultimate test,” he said. “Dorian was the hurricane of hurricanes. If a house can withstand that, this product’s for real.”
But just because a home is strong doesn’t mean it’s invincible. It’s still important to evacuate when directed. Deltec just boosts your chance of having an intact home to return to and, although most of its homes have survived these storms, there are exceptions.
The ultimate test
Dick Love, who lives in Florida, owns a Deltec home on Scotland Cay, just north of Marsh Harbour in the Bahamas, that survived Dorian. Of the 62 homes that once stood there, only three escaped with minimal damage — Love’s, and two others built by the same contractor.
“The house to the left and to the right were obliterated,” he said. “All that was left was the foundation. The only damage to my home was a couple roof shingles, and then [a piece of wood from] the neighbor’s home that was next door. It was attached to his roof and went through the side wall and the inner wall and went through the living room and hit the other wall 25 feet away.”
Wind gusts on Scotland Cay were estimated to have topped 180 mph.
“It looked like an atom bomb went off,” Love said. “For the other homes, it wasn’t just that all four walls were gone, the furniture was gone … the refrigerators, freezers in the houses were nowhere to be found. Everything was blown into the sea. It’s indescribable.”
Love has lived through four hurricanes in Florida, including Jeanne and Frances in 2004. He wasn’t on Scotland Cay when Dorian struck, something he says he’s thankful for.
“My home had 175-mph-rated Deltec shutters, and they survived but with huge bashes and dents in them,” he said.
After some small repairs, Love’s home is as good as new. But not everyone was as fortunate.
When things go wrong
Even the most sturdy homes can fail in top-tier storms, though. Jim Sheldon, a Florida resident who has owned a Deltec home in the Bahamas since the early 1990s, learned that the hard way after his house was demolished by Hurricane Dorian.
“It was quite devastating,” Sheldon said in a phone interview; he contacted The Post after reading the initial report. “It was a labor of love. … We had our blood, sweat and tears [in there].”
Sheldon initially found out his home had been destroyed after spotting it in aerial imagery in an online news article about a week after the storm.
“The whole roof of the round part of the house was lifted up and off the house, and all of the front walls were gone,” Sheldon recalled. “And the furniture and everything inside was destroyed … all over the place. The insurance people came, adjusted it … said it was a total loss. They said ‘the only thing you have left is the floor and the cisterns underneath.’ ”
Sheldon said he worked with Deltec to help it understand failure points of the home. Despite losing his house, he’s building another Deltec home — and says he would again.
The Post contacted Deltec after learning about the loss of Sheldon’s home, and the company confirmed that it had suffered serious damage but noted that it was an isolated incident. Deltec said only two of the 2,000 homes it has built in the past 50 years have sustained structural damage.
“One home [belonging to Sheldon] was in the Bahamas and hit by Dorian, and the other home was in the U.S. Virgin Islands [and was] hit by Irma,” said Scott Cocking, Deltec’s marketing director. “Both homes had specific compounding issues we discovered that led to some structural failures.”
Constant improvement for the storms of tomorrow
Matt Oblinsky, Deltec’s director of engineering, spearheads an effort to constantly find better building materials to further strengthen its designs.
“After each and every hurricane … we reach out to each and every homeowner in the path of a storm to ask how they are,” Linton said. “99.9 percent of the time we’re seeing ‘we lost a couple shingles’ or ‘we lost a piece of trim, but our neighbor’s home was demolished.’ Our homes have been field-tested for a number of years.”
Deltec allows customers the flexibility to customize their homes. About two-thirds of homes it produces are one story, with the remainder are generally two floors. Once in a while the company builds a three-story structure, but those are rare, and usually for commercial purposes. Three stories is the limit. Many customers opt for impact-resistant windows.
Hurricane-proof homes are designed to protect inhabitants from the wind, but nothing can counteract the power of water. That’s why the homes are located to avoid storm surge flooding.
“We do homes up on pilings to elevate them to avoid storm surge,” Oblinsky said. “We highly recommend two feet above flood elevation to protect them from those situations.”
The company also has a proprietary anchoring technique that ensures homes remain firmly affixed in place no matter what Mother Nature throws their way.
Leslie Chapman-Henderson, president of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, or FLASH, said such hurricane-resilient homes as Deltec’s are worth the price in the long run.
“Often in the industry people will talk about price point as the purchase point,” Chapman-Henderson said. “We urge homeowners to consider that the house isn’t just what you pay for it the first day … it’s the time horizon after the hurricane. The homes that are really the most affordable are the ones that survive the storm.”
Chapman-Henderson, whose organization closely studies the recovery process after major storms, says that aspect of storms is rarely talked about — and lasts long after the television crews and reporters leave.
“We have a project we’re doing on Hurricane Michael. We still have hundreds of families who are not back in their home,” she said. “To us, that’s the cost.”
Even for residents who can’t afford a hurricane-proof home, there are plenty of tactics for fortifying your home. Many, Chapman-Henderson said, can be done for under $50.
“The cost of these things is so minuscule,” she said. “A couple handfuls of additional nails that keep the roof there when you need it, for instance.”
Deltec isn’t the only company marketing hurricane-proof homes to consumers. Fox Blocks Insulated Concrete Forms, headquartered in Omaha, helps build hurricane-proof structures, too, but it takes a different approach.
“We are an insulated concrete form manufacturer,” said Mike Kennaw, vice president of Fox Blocks. “We basically manufacture, produce, sell and market the insulate concrete form, which is part of a steel-reinforced wall assembly, and the testing we have done for poured-in-place concrete walls has shown that we have a very high wind test rating.”
The concrete can be one hard shell, meaning fewer failure points, and is more impact-resistant than traditional wood homes. When it comes to roofs and interior walls, however, that’s up to the individual builder.
“We are a component of high-wind construction,” Kennaw said.
Building a hurricane-proof home may cost you a pretty penny (Deltec says its homes cost between “about $200-325 per square foot”), but it’s something people like Chapman-Henderson advocate could pay for itself over time. Meanwhile, forecasters are looking forward to what is likely to be another anomalously busy hurricane season. The National Hurricane Center began issuing its daily tropical weather outlooks on Saturday.