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Tailor construction to the environment

I don't know what it is about Aug. 29 and New Orleans, but it seems like ever since hurricane Katrina, New Orleans gets hit with a major storm on the anniversary. In 2008, my crew and I were down there building a home for a hurricane Katrina victim.

I don't know what it is about Aug. 29 and New Orleans, but it seems like ever since hurricane Katrina, New Orleans gets hit with a major storm on the anniversary.

In 2008, my crew and I were down there building a home for a hurricane Katrina victim. Our target date to complete the build was Aug. 29 - the three-year anniversary. Thanks to a lot of help, we met our deadline. But literally, as soon as we were done, we had to evacuate - hurricane Gustav was on his way. Now seven years after Katrina, it was Isaac.

All of this tells me one thing: New Orleans is in a hurricane zone. And if you're going to build a house in a hurricane zone, you need to make sure it's hurricane proof. That's a no-brainer.

By the time Katrina was over, more than 1,800 people had died - not because of the hurricane, as is often misunderstood. They died because of poor construction.

The people of New Orleans had two strikes against them. First, the levees failed because they weren't built properly. This was a massive failure,with devastating results. Then, the construction of their homes didn't take into account the surrounding environment.

The Lower Ninth Ward was one of the areas worst hit. And it's no surprise - none of the houses there had foundations. They were built on top of cinder blocks sitting on the ground. That's why they floated away in the storm surge.

Engineers learned their lesson - the new levees around New Orleans are built to withstand a Category 3 storm. But unfortunately, that lesson came at a high price. Too many people who should still be alive today lost their lives seven years ago.

It would have been easy for us to throw up a few stick-framed homes on top of cinder blocks. We probably could have built half a dozen homes in the time it took us to build the one house. But that would have been pointless - a huge waste of time, energy, materials and resources. Those kinds of homes couldn't stand up to a hurricane. And with a track record like New Orleans has, you can't afford to build that way.

The construction would fail sooner or later, and when it did, it would endanger people's lives.

As a builder, you never ignore your environment. In fact, the best construction projects are designed and built according to their environments.

For example, the Kansai International Airport in Japan was built on an artificial island made of compacted fill. Not only did engineers have to make sure the airport could withstand earthquakes and typhoons, but also that it stayed above water.

The artificial island the airport was built on gradually sinks. This is because the weight of building materials compresses the fill. So what did engineers do?

They created adjustable columns that are extended by inserting thick metal plates. As the island sinks, the columns are extended and the airport rises.

Good construction addresses the risks, minimizes vulnerabilities and maximizes advantages.

That means building a house above flood levels, if it's vulnerable to floods - even if you have to build it on stilts, like we did in New Orleans.

If a house is in an area where there's a high risk of fires, build it with Pinkwood and add a metal roof.

If it's in a region that's prone to earthquakes, use flexible materials in its construction, like wood and steel rather than stucco, unreinforced concrete and masonry.

The walls and roof should be tied together, too.

Engineering and technology are always moving forward, developing new and better ways to build structures that can stand up to extreme weather. There is no excuse for cutting corners.

If the house is in a hurricane zone, it needs to have strong walls. The plans for the home we built called for stud walls built 24 inches on centre. Instead, we built them 16 inches on centre.

(That means the centre of the first stud is 16 inches from the centre of the second stud, which is 16 inches from the centre of the third stud.) We also added threaded steel rods that went through the walls to help keep the roof on and the structure tied together vertically. The result? A stronger, hurricane-resistant house.

The roof structure was designed to withstand winds up to 150 km/h. All the windows have glass that can tolerate impacts of up to 80 km/h. The exterior doors open out instead of inward, to prevent them from blowing in from wind pressure. We even added a window on the second floor above the side porch that opens onto the low-pitched roof. This gives the homeowners an escape hatch in case of another flood.

New Orleans gets a lot of rain and humidity. It's the perfect environment for mould and rot. So what did we do? We used BluWood for the framing and sheathing of the house. BluWood protects against mould, rot and even insects. Is this above code? Yes. Is it overbuilding? No.

You can't turn a blind eye and hope for the best. When it comes to extreme weather, that's just a recipe for disaster. You need to address the issues, face the facts and adapt your building methods and construction materials. You do this until you have a house that's safe and strong to protect its residents.

That's what building right is all about.

Catch Mike Holmes in his new series, Best of Holmes on Homes, Tuesdays on HGTV. For more information, visit For more information on home renovations, visit