What’s Wrong, and What’s Right, With Residential Building in Texas

musingsheader image

What’s Wrong, and What’s Right, With Residential Building in Texas

Armando Cobo talks about flooding

Posted on Sep 8 2017 by Martin Holladay

For four days in late August 2017, the remnants of Hurricane Harvey dropped between 40 and 51 inches of rain on the Houston area, causing catastrophic flooding. Tens of thousands of homes have been severely damaged or destroyed, and dozens of people have lost their lives.

To those paying attention to real-estate development issues in Houston, the latest flooding, while unprecedented in scope, has followed a predictable pattern. Warning bells were rung in December 2016 by Texas Tribune reporters Neena Satija and Kiah Collier, authors of a prescient article titled “Boomtown, Flood Town.” When Satija and Collier interviewed Sam Brody, a Texas A&M University researcher, Brody told them, “More people die here than anywhere else from floods.” Satija and Coller reported, “Scientists, other experts and federal officials say Houston's explosive growth is largely to blame. As millions have flocked to the metropolitan area in recent decades, local officials have largely snubbed stricter building regulations, allowing developers to pave over crucial acres of prairie land that once absorbed huge amounts of rainwater.”

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, designers and builders are engaged in a soul-searching exercise. The construction community is asking a variety of questions about residential development in flood-prone regions and the wisdom of using government funds to rebuild homes in flooded areas.

I decided to pose some of these questions to Armando Cobo, a residential designer who lives and works in Texas.

Q. How many years have you been working in Texas?

Armando Cobo: I moved here 8 years ago. I design houses, and I help the builders manage or oversee the construction up until the framing inspection. Everything that we do is at the zero-energy level. I want to make sure that everything is done right, so I work with engineers, truss and HVAC(Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning). Collectively, the mechanical systems that heat, ventilate, and cool a building. designers, and HERSIndex or scoring system for energy efficiency established by the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET) that compares a given home to a Home Energy Rating System (HERS) Reference Home based on the 2006 International Energy Conservation Code. A home matching the reference home has a HERS Index of 100. The lower a home’s HERS Index, the more energy efficient it is. A typical existing home has a HERS Index of 130; a net zero energy home has a HERS Index of 0. Older versions of the HERS index were based on a scale that was largely just the opposite in structure--a HERS rating of 100 represented a net zero energy home, while the reference home had a score of 80. There are issues that complicate converting old to new or new to old scores, but the basic formula is: New HERS index = (100 - Old HERS score) * 5. raters to train the subs and verify that things are done correctly. Even before I moved to Texas, I worked here part-time. On and off I’ve been working in Texas for about 20 years. Most of my projects have been in the Dallas area, but at least 20 homes have been in other towns in Texas.

Q. When you determine the final elevation for a house you are designing, do you consider the possibility of flooding?

Armando Cobo: Yes, I strongly recommend a raised elevation to the homeowner and the engineers. Here in Texas, all foundations are required to be designed by structural engineers. I put details of the elevation of the foundation, and I coordinate that with the engineer. It’s very seldom that I don’t get my way. I always tell my clients, “This is the way I design houses. If you don’t want this, don’t hire me.” They can do wood frame, SIPs, or ICFs if they want. They can choose brick or stucco. But there are a few “no compromise” features that I insist on: energy efficiency, moisture management details, indoor air quality, and common-sense disaster-resistant construction.

Q. Have you ever been involved with a Texas project that included zoning requirements or building code requirements related to flooding?

Armando Cobo

Armando Cobo: Yes. If any part of the property is within the 100-year flood zone, you are required to bring it up to design flood elevation and follow the recommendations from FEMA. But that only covers a 100-year flood. What happened in Houston — and what also happened in Austin and Dallas recently — is that we’ve had 500-year floods.

My buildings all comply with the 100-year flood zone requirements, but when you have a 500-year flood, all bets are off. For the houses I have designed in Houston and Beaumont, I recommended a few things that were above the local code requirements. I remember two of my clients in particular. I told them I was going to set the house 3 feet higher than grade level, and they went berserk. They said, “Why? All the other homes in the neighborhood are 1 foot above grade.”

I said, “We are going to do 3 feet. The reason we are going to do it is that you guys are on a golf course, and there is a big creek in the middle of the golf course, and there is regular flooding on this golf course. And the last thing you want is flooding.”

They finally agreed, a little grudgingly. Just this week they called me up and thanked me for the recommendations.

I also use treated plywood for the first 4 feet of wall sheathingMaterial, usually plywood or oriented strand board (OSB), but sometimes wooden boards, installed on the exterior of wall studs, rafters, or roof trusses; siding or roofing installed on the sheathing—sometimes over strapping to create a rainscreen. . You never know when you are going to have a 500-year flood.

This year, I’ve started to recommend designs complying with EF2 criteria. I went to Oklahoma State, and in Oklahoma there are a lot of tornadoes. Designing houses to meet EF2 standards doesn’t cost that much. Here in Texas, wind load requirements used to be based on 90 mph winds. The new code is for 110 mph winds. But going to 130 mph doesn’t cost that much more money. Most of the houses I design are around $1 million and up. So how significant is the cost to build it a little better standard?

Q. Have any customers expressed concerns about flooding?

Armando Cobo: We have had a few clients that brought it up. Four years ago, we had extensive flooding in north Texas. Every time some natural disaster happens, everybody starts asking questions. They ask if a house can be flood-proof. The same thing happens after a tornado. But then, after a year’s time, you never hear about it again. So I’m the one who brings it up.

Q. Has a homeowner in Texas ever asked you to include pervious paving, a rain garden, or similar features to encourage rainwater to be absorbed by the soil?

Armando Cobo: Nobody asks about it, but I do it constantly. Of course, it's harder to do in metro areas. Here in Texas, we’ve had one of the best economies in the country in the last few years. So we’ve had a lot of new construction — among the top 5 or top 10 U.S. cities for construction. But in Dallas and Houston, it’s mostly unplanned growth. No one thinks about all the paved streets and parking lots, all of the hard surfaces. I’m not a developer, so I can’t tell you if Texas has any requirements for permeable parking areas, and I don’t know the regulations for ponding and water retention, or what happens downstream. But I do know that you don’t see much of it. Basically, you just don’t see it. It makes you wonder what the developers are thinking. When a city like Houston gets 51 inches of rain in four days, nobody can plan for that. But urban sprawl is a big contributor.

Q. Have you ever seen other developers building on land that looked susceptible to flooding?

Armando Cobo: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Just 4 or 5 months ago, Houston had big floods. They have a flood every year. I blame the municipalities. I blame the regulations. The policies from the cities and state are nonexistent. After Andrew, Katrina, Sandy, and Harvey — how much will it take for the federal government and the state of Texas to get some cojones? When will the government decide to protect the people?

I heard on the news that fewer than 25% of the homeowners in Houston have flood insurance. Why is that allowed by code? The average cost of repairs for a flooded house in Houston for the past few years has been $150,000. The fact that the regulations don’t require flood insurance astounds me.

The building industry — not only residential builders but commercial builders — don’t want regulations. When anyone wants to strengthen the code, the industry goes, “No.” The National Association of Homebuilders wants to delete all the rules. And when homes get flooded, who pays for it? All of us.

The builders don’t care. A few years after they sell a house, if the house floods, it’s not their problem. Here in Texas, the state decided that you don’t need a license to be a builder. There is no testing of builders, no continuing education. We have builders in Texas who are really proud that they build to code — and we all know what that means.

So is the government protecting the building industry or protecting the citizens? This drives me insane.

Builders will never do a thing that will add even one dollar to a house. Land management has to come from the federal government. The number-one responsibility of the federal government is to protect the citizens. I’m not a regulation-happy person. I believe that regulation has to be done with common sense. But the building industry only looks one year ahead — only as far as it takes to sell this house. We all end up paying for these problems — every citizen.

In California, they require earthquake design. But in Houston, there is no zoning, and the building code is only a few years old. The first house I designed in Houston was a few years ago, and there were no building codes at that time. There are still plenty of areas here in Texas with no building codes at all.

Q. Once rebuilding begins, do you think that there will be a shortage of skilled construction workers?

Armando Cobo: Right now, we are having a really serious problem meeting the labor demand in Texas. It’s been that way for two or three years. And I hear people say, “We want to build a wall.”

A lot of guys who used to work in construction went to work in the oil fields. Now my builders have to wait for subs to come to the job sites. What will happen in Houston when the waters go down? Where will you find people to fix these houses? Look at what happened in New Jersey. They are still working to rebuild New Jersey, and that wasn’t as big a disaster.

Q. Do you have any specific recommendations for designers and builders worried about flooding?

Armando Cobo: Most people don’t realize that the American Society of Civil Engineers has a set of guidelines, a reference standard in the code, that talks about how to do flood design [ASCE Standard 24, Flood Resistant Design and Construction]. The recommendations make sense: design the house higher; make sure that the materials you pick for the first two to four feet are resistant to flooding; think about the electrical system. There are a lot of things that the building industry could do.

But as you know, most builders don’t even know the code book. When I do training sessions for builders, the first question I ask the class is, “How many of you own a copy of the code book?” In a class full of 50 builders, usually one or two people raise their hands. A builder who doesn’t have a code book is like a doctor who never studied biology.

It's time for new policies

Another Texas resident, Robert Hallenbeck of Houston, provided further perspective on the issues raised by Armando Cobo. In a comment posted on GBA, Hallenbeck provided these suggestions after Hurricane Harvey flooded his city: “Buyouts, access to better information/data, revised flood maps, and investing in resiliency all constitute sensible policies; however the lack of watershed-wide planning inhibits the region. The Rebuild Houston program (~2010) includes Developer Impact Fees (one-time) and a Drainage Utility Charge (ongoing) to push developers and owners to consider impact while raising funds dedicated to drainage work.

“However, much of the new development in the region happens in the suburban towns and counties outside Houston that have no such fees and whose continued development increases the severity of flooding in Houston.

“Having spent the last week cleaning out and removing drywall from a family member's flooded 1950s-era slab-on-grade that had never flooded [before Harvey], it's clear to me whatever policies are adopted, ‘doing the same thing’ is no longer an option.”

Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “Green Cohousing Communities — and Other Options.”

Click here to follow Martin Holladay on Twitter.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Image Credits:

  1. Wikipedia

Sep 8, 2017 2:05 PM ET

Hope things change
by Malcolm Taylor

"Doing the same thing is no longer an option". Unfortunately it has proven to be the most commonly chosen option. I hope for the residents of Texas and other vulnerable regions it isn't the choice policy maker pick, but I wouldn't hold my breath.

Amando's interview was heartening. He may not be able to influence policy, but where he can influence clients he has made a real difference. A good role model for designers and builders anywhere.

Sep 8, 2017 2:21 PM ET

Response to Malcolm Taylor
by Martin Holladay

Like you, I hope things change.

It's possible that Hurricane Irma will reinforce some of the lessons of Hurricane Harvey. According to today's New York Times (see image below), Florida "continues to encourage building in dangerous places."


Building in dangerous places.jpg

Sep 8, 2017 2:26 PM ET

Up Here
by Malcolm Taylor

What I find frustrating about the high-profile floods that have made the news up here in Canada recently is the seeming inevitability once you look back on them.

- When the city of High River flooded, the vast majority of damage was to finished basements. Main floors, typically situated several steps up, were untouched. If you live in a town called High River, is it a good idea to build or finish a basement?

- Calgary suffered widespread property damage when houses built on the flood plain of the Bow River were inundated. Something that has happened periodically since the area was settled.

- Here in Vancouver Island there are communities that flood every spring. The amount of the damage depends on the extent of the flooding - but it happens to some extent every year.

Unlike some other natural disasters, flooding generally doesn't just come out of the blue. It is predicable, and the solutions involve simple measures that only get implemented when policy makers admit the problem exists.

The city of Vancouver commissioned a study predicting possible increases in sea levels due to climate change. All waterfront design and infrastructure is now being built to new standards taking this into account. Those sort of simple decisions, while politically difficult are what can mitigate the huge majority of these events.

Sep 8, 2017 2:32 PM ET

Flooding in a town called High River
by Martin Holladay

Your story about flooding in a town called High River reminds me of the famous mold complaints made by Melinda Ballard, a resident of Dripping Springs, Texas.

Sep 8, 2017 2:52 PM ET

Edited Sep 8, 2017 2:53 PM ET.

Glass Houses
by Malcolm Taylor

I live on top of a fault line in a region where the code just added the first seismic requirements five years ago.

Dripping Springs. Ha ha!

Sep 8, 2017 5:51 PM ET

Edited Sep 8, 2017 5:53 PM ET.

by Armando Cobo

Maybe the GBA could expand with follow up article(s) on resilient construction, not just flooding, but tornadoes, hail, earthquakes in the Midwest due to fracking, fire, etc.
I should have mention about the Insurance Institute for Building and Home Safety, and the great research work they are doing. They have come up with lots of good recommendations for different types of disasters, and offer a certification program. The average additional cost to build a house with FORTIFIED® resilient construction techniques is about $1,500. Watch this “cool” videos… https://vimeo.com/17764719
A couple of years ago, the House passed H.R. 3397, the Disaster Savings and Resilient Construction Act of 2015, which provides, up to $3,000 tax credit to owners and contractors who use resilient construction techniques for new and renovating structures in federally declared disaster areas, following the IIBHS certification.
Congress authorized $9.7 billion to cover insurance claims filed by folks whose homes were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, plus a supplemental $50.7 billion package. That’s over $60 BILLION for folks to rebuild in the same location. All that money is usually not in the budget. In this day and age, we cannot afford to completely rebuild every time a disaster happens in the same area year after year..
After 12 years, over $100 BILLION were spent, though Congress, in recoveries after hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma, and no telling how much more through the Red Cross and other organizations. Some folks in Houston are estimating the recovery costs as high as $200 BILLION. Is this insane? Or is it just me?
So why these areas are allow to rebuild without resilient construction? And in some areas, why are they rebuilding there at all?

Sep 8, 2017 10:07 PM ET

100 year floods
by Ethan T ; Climate Zone 5A ; ~6000HDD

My understanding is that the definition of a 100 year flood is a flood that has a 1% chance of occurring in any given year. Terms like 500 year flood or 1000 year flood are statistically unsupported. However, the expectations for what constitutes a 100 flood seem destined for recalibration in short order.

Sep 8, 2017 11:47 PM ET

by Malcolm Taylor

"So why these areas are allow to rebuild without resilient construction? And in some areas, why are they rebuilding there at all?"

As you say: that's the 200 billion dollar question.

Sep 11, 2017 2:41 PM ET

Learning Curve
by Andy Kosick

This year in Mid Michigan we had our second 100 year flood in 30 years. I was a kid during the first and remember that in my neighborhood the biggest problem wasn't the 1 to 2 feet of water in the basement but that it came from the sanitary sewer. 30 years later nothing has changed. This time I was depressed for a week after the flood, not because of the stuff people lost (let's face it the average person could throw away everything in their basement and probably not miss it for months) but because of the fleets of water restoration companies scurrying around town to put everything back the way it was, as quickly as possible.

Sep 12, 2017 9:16 AM ET

Adding insult to injury...
by Armando Cobo

In the last couple of days, here in North TX, I've talked to two builders who told me that framers are demanding higher prices or else they are going to Houston. As I say to Martin, things are going to get ugly for awhile, not just here in TX, but possibly in the Southeast as well.

Register for a free account and join the conversation

Get a free account and join the conversation!
Become a GBA PRO!