The Weather Outside Doesn’t Have to be Frightful

With proper planning, developers and operators can protect residents in emergencies.

By Rockland Berg 

When inclement and devastating weather is on the horizon, many senior living communities applaud themselves for being proactive and having a successful weather preparedness plan and sound infrastructure in place. For others, fear settles in as the team realizes it is unprepared and the community cannot withstand the inclement weather. 

Communities in unfortunate locations could be snowed in, flooded, caught up in gusty hurricanes, struck by tornados or covered in sheets of ice.

Proactive or reactive? Which will your community be?

When preparing the schematic design of a new community, it’s imperative to analyze the climate and natural surroundings. This will determine how architects and contractors will work together to design and build safe havens for natural disasters, and how communities can take safety precautions should inclement weather hit. Understanding the weather risks can drastically change the design and style of the community. 

For example, one of our clients acquired a property next to a water management bayou that was considered a flood risk. Knowing this, we conceived a plan to raise the building pad and put the residential components on stilts. 

Parking and primary service components were located out of harm’s way in the event of a flood event. We worked closely with the local jurisdiction to understand their requirements and capabilities during storm events. 

The project is now a diamond in the rough. While it’s best to assess the climate and weather history before building a senior living community, you can make adjustments afterward as well to accommodate unprecedented natural disasters. 

Being prepared for inclement weather involves more than simply figuring out what a community needs for its residents to survive. It’s about thinking through the logistics. 

You must consider safe areas to take shelter, accessible locations for supplies and the best route for team members to access them. The plan doesn’t stop there though. 

Sure, having access to a kitchen with food and water, as well as medical supplies and other bare necessities, plays a part. But one must figure out how much food, water and other supplies are needed, especially when there’s a reduction of power. In addition, where is there ample space to store these items, and how are they accessible from a safe room? 

Planning your safe space

When thinking of the safe space, communities need to choose an area in which they can build a centrally located concrete holding space that will protect people from flying debris. 

Next, planners must ask, “Is this an area that is prone to flooding?” If so, it needs to be elevated. 

The size of the space itself depends on a few factors. Is the community in an area where people could be stuck for a few days because of an extreme natural disaster? Will employees be required to stay extra days to see residents through upcoming shifts if weather prevents new employees from coming in? Does the community allow for team members’ families to take shelter if their loved ones are working? 

If the answers are yes, then the safe space will need to be designed to accommodate extra family beyond those living and working in the community.  

Other questions architects and companies should discuss when developing a weather preparedness infrastructure include:

  • How much of the building do you want to run on backup power? How many generators will this require? Where do you place the generators so they won’t get flooded and you can refuel them?
  • When you hear of a storm, do you have a protocol lined up with service providers to restock resources you may need, such as propane fuel?
  • How would an evacuation occur if you needed to get people out safely and quickly? What routes do you use? How do you design the exterior of the building so the fenestration is high wind resistant and does not tear away from the building?

Individualize your plan

There are many aspects to consider when it comes to weather, and they vary from one location to the next. 

For example, in an area prone to tornadoes, you may put the safe space in a centralized location on the first floor. In coastal states where there are floodplains and hurricanes, the safe space would need to be centralized but located above the tidal surge floor. 

It is recommended that communities work with fire marshals to develop evacuation plans in case of flooding. The Houston community referenced earlier coordinated with its local fire marshal to develop an evacuation plan that entailed relying on the Buffalo Bison Bayou to move people using the city’s water evacuation system. 

It’s not just coastal cities that face risks. Even properties in markets such as Dallas are being built adjacent to floodplains because the land is less expensive. In these circumstances, use positively graded levees to move water away from buildings. 

For these reasons, you should individualize and customize weather preparedness plans depending upon the number of residents, the location and style of community, the various types of inclement weather that could hit, emergency response plans and more. 


Rockland “Rocky” Berg is principal and director of business development at three: living architecture, an architecture and design firm focused on seniors housing.