What is a hurricane-proof house?

John Bologna, a structural engineer in Orleans, says it’s a concrete bunker with bulletproof windows, stocked with emergency pumps, backup batteris, and a 10-week supply of food.

A bunker’s walls would be impermeable to the threats from a hurricane: flying debris which become projectiles, cracking houses; floating debris, which act as battering rams and break into buildings.

Bologna also gets that concrete bunkers don’t really evoke that feeling of home. Most people don’t want to live in them.

But some homes on the Cape that have been around for centuries, like the Wing Fort House in Sandwich.

Since the 1600’s, the Wing Fort House in Sandwich has weathered multiple seasons of hurricanes and Northeasters.
Pien Huang WCAI

It’s sheltered the Wing family since the 1600’s, through the hammering of hurricanes and winter storms—without an ounce of concrete

David Wheelock, the house caretaker, says it's still standing for two main reasons: the structure and the site.

Its sturdy, timber frame is created from huge pieces of wood, locked together with pegs and lap joints. “If there was a machine big enough,” Wheelock says, “You could pick this house up with a crane, and start spinning it around and whip it 300 feet away, it’d hit the ground and probably be in one piece. I don’t think it would break.”

This house is really solid, but it’s just sitting on its stone foundation, held down by its weight. Other homes from that era have long washed away.

The Wing Fort House was built with a sturdy, timber frame, locked together with pegs and lap joints.
Pien Huang WCAI

So along with the structure, the other big reason that it’s lasted is the location. It’s up on a hill, “elevated, so it’s well-drained, you don’t have to worry about flooding,” Wheelock says. And it’s inland, buffered from hurricane forces.

The old-school way to hurricane-proof a home is to make sure it's sturdy and well-sited. It’s what all the old sea captains did.

But these days, if we can afford it, we want to live right on the water. And when we build our homes on beaches or in the dunes, we’re putting them in harm’s way.

Architect Sibel Asantugrul says contemporary architecture is about bringing nature in, while keeping the elements out. She’s working on a new home on a bluff, overlooking Pleasant Bay in Orleans. To get the views, she says, we need a lot of windows.

But windows are a major point of vulnerability. They’re essentially glass-covered holes, cut out of a solid wall.

This house, which has more windows than Asantugrul remembers, has John Bologna as its engineer. He uses structural design to compensate for its vulnerabilities.

The bones of the house are as solid as a bunker, with steel beams hidden in the walls and the ceiling, helping to hold impact-resistant windows in place.

Those windows are made with two layers of glass, bonded by a plastic resin. In winds of up to 150 mph, when a lawn chair comes flying at your house, it might splinter, but it's not supposed to break.

Metal-reinforced connections tie the roof to the walls, and the walls to the foundation.

But once the walls are up, all you’ll see a big, open room with floor-to-ceiling windows. It’s a fortress masquerading as a simple home with a stellar view.

This house is built to deal with Category 4 storms, with winds over 130 miles per hour.

Jeff Donnelly, who studies hurricanes at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, says that a storm of that strength are “really rare—a one in 1000, to one in 2000 year event.”

We haven’t seen one yet on the Cape.

But if that storm comes, you can take your chances between a concrete bunker, the Wing Fort House, and the new build on Pleasant Bay.

As far as we know, they’re all hurricane-proof—at least until they’re tested and proven otherwise.

Pien Huang is an environmental reporting fellow with the GroundTruth Project, based at WCAI.