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Are Chattel Houses Hurricane Proof?

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One of the questions that has been asked by several visitors to the Chattel Houses Instagram page is if chattel houses are hurricane proof. Depending on who you ask, you might receive either an affirmative answer or a negative answer. Truth be told, this question requires an assessment of several variables. These variables include building regulations, home design, builder knowledge and tropical storm behaviour.

In recent times, many islands in the Caribbean have suffered direct impacts by large and intense Category 4 and 5 hurricanes. Many of the houses in these islands were either partially damaged or completely destroyed. Photos that show the aftermath of the hurricane, reveal bits and pieces of houses strewn near and far. No home whether it be made of concrete or wood, which is what chattel houses are constructed of, is safe from a direct impact by a category 5 tropical storm.

Hurricane Janet (1955)

Before we analyse the variables which will help us to determine if chattel houses are hurricane proof, we will look at a well known case study – 1955’s Hurricane Janet and Barbados. Although there have been more recent incidents of direct hurricane impacts, the Hurricane Janet occurred in 1955, when chattel houses in Barbados were more commonplace and the majority of the population lived in this type of home.

When Hurricane Janet hit Barbados, it was still a young, developing storm. However, winds recorded on the island were reportedly between between 110 and 120 miles per hour. These winds, along with the accompanying rain and storm surge, resulted in the deaths of 38 people; 8,100 homes were damaged and 20,000 homeless people. Reports have noted that poorly constructed homes and other buildings were those that received the most damage or were destroyed.

At that time, building regulations in Barbados were not as they are now. And, chattel houses, because of how they were constructed, were the homes that received the most damage. One of the photos of the aftermath from the National Archives UK, shows a chattel house lying on its roof in the middle of the road, completely separate from its foundation. However, that same photo shows surrounding chattel houses upright on their foundations and still standing!

Chattel Houses in Barbados

In a previous post, there was some discussion about the chattel house and how it was constructed. Chattel houses were constructed of wood and sat on a foundation of tightly packed stones and rocks. The principal behind these homes, was that they could be easily be deconstructed and moved to another spot when the need arose. Because of this requirement, chattel houses were built with that need at the forefront. Of course, the homes were intended to provide shelter for the family, but there is no clear evidence that supports the fact that the homes were built to be tropical storm or hurricane proof.

As times have progressed, construction of modern chattel houses has incorporated more resilient building techniques. Whilst some homes are still built so that they can be moved or sold, other have been constructed to be more permanent dwellings. The wooden chattel house is still more cost effective to build than the newer concrete homes. They offer the same comforts and satisfy the basic need for shelter and security from the elements.

Do Hurricane Proof Chattel Houses Even Exist?

Recent tropical storms of varying strengths have shown that completely hurricane proof homes, whether they be constructed of wood or concrete or metal are rare. Category 5 storms namely Harvey, Irma and Maria were all of varying strengths and caused different types of damage. When one thinks of a hurricane, often times, it is the impact of wind and rain that comes to mind and causes much fear. However, hurricanes have been known to cause significant flooding, deadly mudslides and catastrophic storm surge. Homes that may be deemed strong enough to withstand hurricane wind and rain, may not be able to survive a flood or a mudslide.

Storm Strength

One of the major considerations when discussing hurricane proof chattel homes is strength of tropical storms as explained by the Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale. The scale explains the various strengths of tropical storms and sorts them into categories. The weakest tropical storm is a Category 1, with winds between 74 and 95 miles per hour. The strongest tropical storm is the Category 5 storm with winds upwards of 157 miles per hour. A home built to withstand a lower level storm, may not be strong enough to withstand a Category 5 storm or an unusually strong hurricane.

Building Regulations

Building regulations are also are also of importance to the debate about whether hurricane proof houses including chattel houses exist. As highlighted by Linda Dias, the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States’ building code was designed to ensure that some buildings built in the region, could withstand storms with winds up to 180 miles per hour, depending on their location  in the hurricane chain. Building regulations must also be interpreted in consideration of the home design  and the builder’s knowledge of the code and ability to interpret and execute the guidelines.

It is difficult to say without some level of deep, evidence based research that two homes in close proximity to each other would perform the same under the similar conditions. However, many photos that show tropical storm destruction, reveal shoddy construction work and highlight the need for enforceable building codes and regulations. Therefore the focus should be on how to reduce damage to property in the event of the occurrence of any tropical storm.

How to Strengthen Your Chattel House

Based on these factors that have been highlighted, there are several approaches that can be taken to ensure that your house, be it a chattel house built from one of our chattel house plans, a concrete block home or a home built using a combination of wood and brick. The decision to purchase or build a home, should take the majority or all of the following factors into consideration.


Where is your desired property located? When purchasing a home, you have to spend some time researching the area. Although many real estate websites focus on things like the quality of schools and crime levels in the area, there are many more factors that should inform your decision. What type of soil is the area and does it require specific building techniques? What was the area like before it was developed? How does the area look with extreme weather and what are the amenities in place to tackle extreme weather?

Familiarity with Building Codes

The building code will guide you in the process of building a strong home. Yes, different areas have different regulations, but they are all valid for the area in which you will be constructing or purchasing your home. Your contractor or real estate agent should be familiar with the code. But, as the home owner, you should also be knowledgeable about what is allowed and what is not allowed.

Build a Firm Foundation

The foundation of any home is critical to how that home performs during a stressful weather event. Foundations must be built according to the soil conditions and must be able to withstand shifts in the soil over time. Concrete foundations reinforced with steel are suggested by several experts. Further, when constructing the foundation, it is suggested that the concrete be given enough time to cure properly and the concrete pour for the floor be completed in one go.

Build on Reinforced Stilts

If you are in a flood prone area or in close proximity to the ocean, a lake or any other body of water, elevating the home on stilts is advisable. These stilts should be constructed with concrete blocks, steel and a strong concrete mixture. Additionally, they should be tied together with steel reinforced beams, that follow the suggestions in the previous tip.

Fortified and Reinforced Windows and Doors

Impact resistant windows and doors can provide advanced protection from wind and rain and reduce energy costs.  Hurricane shutters can also be added to add another layer of protection.

Secure Your Roof With Hurricane Straps

The chattel house plans available for sale on this website, suggest reinforcing and securing the roof with hurricane straps. These straps ensure that the roof of the home remains to the structure of the house. They are designed to resist the inward and outward pressures which develop outside and inside the home during an extreme weather event. Hurricane straps and other similar fasteners are usually mandated by building codes in areas prone to tropical storms.

It is very difficult to construct a Category 5 hurricane proof chattel house or any house. However, it is very easy to put precautions in place to reduce the damage of a very strong tropical storm on your home. If the construction of your chattel house meets the requirements of your local building code, you will have a strong home to provide shelter for a very long time.

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