Fighting the Wind – How We Contribute to Natural Disasters

Written by  Dr. Eugene Tsui and Allen Dusault
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We build our houses as boxes, primarily rectangular boxes of varying sizes and shapes. But boxes have lousy geometry when it comes to shedding wind forces. Why aren’t we building residential construction that is more aerodynamic?

We build our houses as boxes, primarily rectangular boxes of varying sizes and shapes. But boxes have lousy geometry when it comes to shedding wind forces. Here is a new concept to fight against the force of wind – Aerodynamic Architecture! 

This past year we have seen the destructive power of wind particularly from tornadoes in, for example, Joplin, Missouri and Tuscaloosa Alabama. We also had hurricane Irene that impacted long stretches of the East Coast. In the aftermath of the tornadoes there was the usual call for stronger building standards to make residential construction safer to minimize damage and loss of life. We have heard such calls before, such as when strong hurricanes have wreaked havoc in Florida and neighboring states. And there have been improvements over the years in building standards even if they have been more modest than needed. 


But there is something missing from this discussion; a question we are not asking. Why aren’t we building residential construction that is more aerodynamic? Yes, aerodynamic like we have been doing with our automobiles. We have been making our cars more aerodynamic for a long time, primarily to improve fuel mileage. Compare the Ford Model T to today’s Ford Focus. They are significantly different in shape and ability to shed wind. 

Our houses are not unlike the Model T. We build them as boxes, primarily rectangular boxes of varying sizes and shapes. But boxes have lousy geometry when it comes to shedding wind forces. They expose lots of surface area and flat walls can catch the full force of wind causing damage and destruction. And they often have long roof overhangs, section add-ons and wind catching ornamentation. A streamlined home presents lower wind resistance or better “coefficient of drag”, to borrow a term usually applied to automobiles.

And that is a good thing when it comes to hurricanes and tornadoes. But it is not the only benefit. Better geometry can also lower surface area to volume enclosed, reducing energy for heating and cooling. And by reducing or eliminating sharp corners, which concentrate forces, there is potential to reduce seismic loads on our buildings in earthquake country. 

But what geometric shape or shapes should we be using for our homes to make them more aerodynamic, recognizing that most people aren’t going to live in geodesic domes. We can take some cues from nature, which doesn’t build boxes, but does have to deal with wind and other forces. Whether it’s the honeybee, who builds with hexagons, the nautilus that uses circular spirals or birds that construct hemispherical abodes, there are many forms that could be adapted to residential construction, some are fairly tame and others more radical. These many different shapes offer the potential for safer and more environmentally benign homes potentially fostering a creative new aesthetic. That could move us beyond the conventional “plywood nostalgia box” we are so emotionally attached to and seem reluctant to give up. 

Our preferences in home design are not innate; they are learned. And there is precedent for shifting to different aesthetics from what we grew up with. We see that in our clothes, in furniture and in our beloved cars, just to cite a few examples. But we have to recognize that there is a need to shift before we can create the opportunity to do it. We may have to take a lesson from the energy crisis of several decades ago when we began the march to more fuel-efficient cars. It doesn’t have to come from a government mandate. But more aerodynamic houses should be in our future. Better energy efficiency, safer homes, less earthquake risk are some of the reasons to change. We just need to think outside the box. 


About the Authors

​Eugene Tsui

Dr. Tsui is known as a multi-talented polymath maintaining offices in Emeryville, California, USA and Shenzhen, China. He currently conducts research at South China University of Science and Technology, Harbin University of Technology, and Yu Cai Schools, China. His varied designs include Watsu Center School, the Ecological House of the Future, the Tsui Design and Research complex, the Nexus Mobile Floating Sea City, and the Telos Education Center. He has received Awards include: National Endowment for The Arts Award, National Endowment For The Arts Travel Award, Graham Foundation Advanced Arts Award, Gold Medal of the USA Craftsman’s Guild, Overall Multiple Grand Prize of the California State Fair, AIA Award For Most Exciting Design. Dr. Tsui holds a PhD in Architecture from the University of California, Berkeley. 


Allen Dusault

Allen is a green evangelist and an environmental consultant based in San Francisco and Chicago. His areas of expertise include renewable energy, climate change and sustainable land use. Allen has worked on implementation of California’s landmark climate change legislation (AB 32), developed the first greenhouse gas reduction protocol in California with the Climate Action Registry and has helped implement California’s carbon offset market. He has managed and collaborated several projects and programs on sustainability. He holds a BS in Natural Resources from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, an MBA from the University of Redlands, an MS in Resource Management from the University of Guelph in Canada. He also studied architecture at San Francisco Institute of Architecture.

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