Tornadoes, cyclones and any other storm with strong winds can dismantle a typical wood-frame house in a few seconds. However, the challenge for architects and builders is how to design a tornado-proof home that does not look like a bunker.

The challenge for architects and builders is determining how to design a tornado-proof home that does not look like a bunker.

Finding the balance between resiliency and livability is a key to how buildings that can survive different kind of natural disasters, such as hurricanes, flooding or earthquakes, are designed.

“If you made a perfect earthquake structure, it would be a bunker with 24-inch walls and one small steel door for you to get in,” said California-based architect Michael Willis. “That structure would be based on the empirical measurements of structural engineers. You could design it to be perfectly resistant. But it would not be a place you’d want to live.”

Stamp House by Charles Wright

Australian firm Charles Wright Architects used a mixture of precast and in-situ concrete to construct a house that can withstand the most powerful cyclones in northern Queensland.

The American Institute of Architects, Make it Right, the St. Bernard Project and Architecture for Humanity teamed up create Designing Recovery, a design competition that was launched to promote projects designed after, or to prevent, disasters balancing both; to build safe places and homes where people might actually be willing to live.

Participants were asked to model new housing solutions for communities that have experienced three very different disasters: the 2011 tornado in Joplin, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and Superstorm Sandy in New York.

Designing Recovery aims to actually see the winning designs built, one selected for each setting, with the help of volunteer labour and donated funds and materials.

The Joplin winner, designed by Q4 Architects, faced a distinct limitation as the geology in Joplin makes it impossible to build tornado cellars or basements.

Tornado proof CORE house

Tornado-proof CORE house designed by Q4 Architects.

Located in the southwestern corner of Missouri, Joplin is one of many urban areas around the world that have been devastated by tornadoes, which destroyed thousands of houses and seriously damaged apartments, businesses, school buildings and medical centres.

Q4 Architects’ winning project created a safe space inside a house instead of the traditional tornado-proof shelter underneath it. The concept is “kind of a house inside of a house”, they said.

The building features a highly indestructible 600 square-foot central building of concrete masonry, hurricane shutters and tornado doors where a family could survive a tornado and live after it, with several flexible and affordable rooms wrapped around it.

Tornado proof CORE house floor plan

Tornado-proof CORE house designed by Q4 Architects. Floor plan.

The tornado-proof CORE house includes the kitchen, bathroom, laundry, access to back up system and an open floor plan space used as a dining room with heavy-duty tornado doors. Two bedrooms and a large living room connected to a front porch are the affordable rooms located around the house that will eventually be destroyed by the tornado. In that case, the central space used as a dining room would serve as two temporally bedrooms.

“It is going to do its best to fight the tornado,” said Q4 Architects senior architect Elizabeth George of the home’s core. “Part of your house might get torn away, but the most important parts of the house are safe. After the disaster, everything is not lost. You’re able to keep the most valuable things, which are the people, the functions of the house, and maybe your valuables.”

The first prototype of a tornado-proof house will be built in Utica, Kansas, a small town located west of Wichita.

Tornado proof house by 10 Design

Tornado proof house designed by architecture firm 10 Design

The design, which entails the house lowering into the ground when a storm is approaching, was designed and is actually being constructed by Hong-Kong architecture firm 10 Design and lead designer Ted Givens.

It features a 900 square foot home with a frame made of concrete and glass inserts. Four hydraulic lifts are located at each corner of the house, to raise and lower the house when a tornado is coming.

“The roof must be heavily reinforced, but the walls could be anything you want, even all glass,” Givens explained.

Tornado proof house by 10 Design top view

The small courtyard in the centre of the tornado-proof house is used to collect rain water and bring in light when the house is collapsed.

In addition, there is a small courtyard in the centre of the house to collect rain water and bring in light when the house is collapsed.

Although the idea is sound, the tornado-proof house would be much more expensive than the CORE house, which is meant to be a safe and affordable place – constructed for under US$50,000 – and it can be wrapped around with a construction of any style, aiming to capture the balance between resiliency and livability.