Ever since Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida in 1992, building code updates in hurricane prone areas of the U.S. have been changing the course of masonry home construction. Florida, as a leader in this area, is at the forefront in adopting wind-resistant masonry construction standards. By necessity and choice, the state's masonry community is pushing storm-resistant techniques even further.

Kristin Beall is a third-generation home builder in Mount Dora, Fla. Her grandfather's company, Charlie Johnson Builder, has been a champion of masonry homes for 45 years. “Whether your concern is hurricanes, termites, or energy efficiency,” said Beall, “we believe concrete block is the best building product.”

Building strong

Charlie Johnson Builder's homes are engineered to address two of the biggest problem areas during storms: roof detachment and the need for storm shelters. All of the homes exceed Florida's newest codes for high wind provisions.

The builder routinely uses 5/8-in. rebar to strengthen concrete block walls. In addition, all of its homes come standard with safe rooms, usually inside walk-in closets, designed to FEMA standards. Now, the company is taking the next step: modifying some of its most popular floor plans to build an entire development of “Storm Safe Homes.”

The Oaks at Summer Glen community in Eustis, Fla., will eventually include 59 homes between 1250 and 1900 sq ft and starting in the $150,000 range. Beall is working with the Institute for Business and Homes Safety, an organization committed to reducing the social and economic effects of natural disasters, to design and build homes that are engineered to withstand up to 130-mph wind loads, which is higher than the typical standard for a masonry home.

“There is a night and day difference between the Storm Safe Homes,” said Adan Benavides, owner of A&B Concrete and Charlie Johnson's mason contractor. “They are much stronger. In the safe rooms, we add rebar every 8 in. and fill all of the walls with concrete. There is a concrete roof reinforced with rebar.”

Storm Safe Homes are designed with either hip roofs instead of gables, or concrete block gables instead of wood. Benavides estimated that the homes take about one week longer to build than a typical masonry version.

Benavides has owned his business for 10 years, but has been a masonry contractor for more than 30 years. He reported that his job as a mason hasn't changed drastically over that period, even as building codes have been updated. He believes that a quality masonry home is still the best you can have in an area with strong storms – as long as it is well-built.

“Some builders are just focused on saving dimes and pennies,” he continued, “but others don't mind spending more money to give the customer a better quality home.” He pointed to Charlie Johnson Builders' standard use of 3000-psi concrete with reinforcing fiber and precast concrete lintels, rather than the commonly used 2500-psi without fiber and less costly steel lintels to strengthen window and door openings, as a case in point.