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Thread: Dangerous weather and architecture

  1. #1
    Cyburbian
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    Dangerous weather and architecture

    After the tragic tornado that hit Joplin, MO. (and personally knowing people from Joplin) It really got me to consider how essential traditional/classical architecture really is to us.

    Watching the news, they commented that this tornado was "unsurvivable", and yet, many survived, yet hundreds of families are now homeless because of it.

    In tornado alley, we accept tornadoes as a consequence for living where we do, and common sense says to build basements. However, they aren't necessarily required.

    Watching images of the devastation, I couldn't help but notice how every wooden structure was absolutely shredded, and yet the concrete and masonry buildings remained standing. (masonry buildings were still a bit damaged)

    I believe that all these lives could have been saved if we weren't so reliant on our ballon-framed homes. Look back to the old childhood story about the wolf and the three pigs. It should be common sense for us not to build our buildings entirely out of wood.

    I also believe that the balloon-frame is one of the primary reasons we are able to sprawl out. So wouldn't it be appropriate, not just for the sake of our environment and cities, but also for our on safety, to ban balloon-framed houses and ban the use of wood in exterior walls? In areas like tornado alley, wouldn't it also make sense to make basements (or a storm shelter) an absolute requirement for every house?

    This would not only make our homes safer, but it would also help limit sprawl, as it would require developers to take more care in the homes they build. I know this would increase prices, but wouldn't that also encourage a variety of housing? And higher housing prices would also (i would argue) possibly encourage people to stay put instead of jumping around.

    What do you think? I know not everyone is on board with traditional construction when it's based on form (or even the environment), but could we finally turn the tables by showing how dangerous balloon-framed housing really is?

  2. #2
    Cyburbian
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    I would hesitate to ban a specific type of housing based on risk of damage from natural hazards in the manner you described. The problem is that people understand the risks. I know that I am at risk of losing my home/life to tsunami, earthquakes, volcanoes, and hurricanes, but I cannot afford to live in better/safer housing. These are the risks I assume by living in Hawaii.

    I definitely agree with you on principle - we should be focusing on improving our building and design codes so that development/redevelopment in suited for local risks and hazards, but I don't think a blanket ban is the solution.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian Raf's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by TerraSapient View post
    we should be focusing on improving our building and design codes so that development/redevelopment in suited for local risks and hazards, but I don't think a blanket ban is the solution.
    TS is spot on. As with earthquakes here in California, engineers and architects study how buildings were effected by 2 major earthquake events: 1989 Loma Preitta, and 1994 Northridge. Major code changes came about from these two natural disasters. Based on the recent Tsunami in Japan, one could guess this state will yet again look at how the quake and the Tsunami effect the built environment and will incorporate changes based on what we learn for our next code cycle in 2012.

    After the mourning is done, the real work needs to begin in the heartland to see where codes can be changed to help strengthen building design to better protect residents from such disasters.
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    Cyburbian
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    To be honest, that kind of sounds like a knee jerk reaction. The chances of actually getting hit by tornado are still extremely remote. Earthquakes, hurricanes, and flooding devastate massive swaths of land while tornadoes are relatively isolated. In recent weeks, a few tornadoes have hit some very populated areas but that is unusual. I don't disagree that construction techniques could definitely be improved but it seems fundamentally changing them, especially with the increased costs, doesn't seem reasonable.

    What it boils down to is that getting hit by a tornado is just very bad luck. I think just building tornado shelters so people can actually survive rather than reinforcing buildings to better withstand a storm is a more reasonable way to address the problem. Then with improved forecasting, people could actually have enough time to get into their shelters. From what I was reading, it didn't seem like a lot of people could even get to appropriate shelters.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian WSU MUP Student's avatar
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    There are huge sections of the U.S. that are not technically in the traditional "Tornado Alley" but still experience their fair share of tornadoes (i.e. the Upper Midwest/Great Lakes area). To outright ban a type of housing construction that is relatively affordable and works well for these environments (wood construction is very well suited for the freeze and thaw cycle) could have the effect of making new construction unnecessarily expensive. Besides, it's not just stick-built construction that is susceptible to heavy damage from a tornado (that's just one example, I could easily find 20 more with just as much damage and some with deaths within the last few years).

    Instead of banning the construction outright why not stop providing subsidies to mortgage lenders for loans on these types of homes or to insurance providers and underwriters who write the policies on particular types of homes in particular geographies? This would in turn make these homes more expensive and lower demand while placing more of the actual risk on the homeowner. (I'm not saying I'm in favor of this either, it's just the first thought that comes to my mind when considering the original question)
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    OH....IO Hink's avatar
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    Instead of just banning it, there could always be a requirement for a "safe room" if you want to have a stick built home. A room that is either below grade, or somehow attached to the ground without windows.

    I don't really support forcing people to buy a certain housing type, but I think it is like seat belts - just because you don't want to save your life, doesn't mean we shouldn't make it possible for you if you choose to.
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  7. #7
    Cyburbian Linda_D's avatar
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    I think that the building requirements need to fit the chances of a particular natural disaster occurring. Would somebody living in Nebraska really need hurricane shutters? Should Californians be forced to build homes to withstand tornadoes? Should New Yorkers have to build homes to meet California earthquake standards? There needs to be some common sense here. Yeah, we could build homes to withstand every kind of natural disaster known to man, but most of us would then be homeless.

    In the long run, we would do better as a nation to discourage as many people as possible from living in river and coastal flood plains than in attempting to "protect" people from tornadoes by banning certain types of buildings. Far more people die in flooding annually than die in tornadoes, and the property damage from floods, storm surges, and tsunamis dwarfs the damage from tornadoes.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    Like the seatbelt analogy, I think requiring a basement or safe room (but not necessarily a particular construction material) would not be too hard of a sell going forward. California has earthquake standards, for example, and while there may have been complaints originally, it has been adopted and is simply part of the building code now.

    My grandmother survived a tornado as a child in Oklahoma. It completely destroyed their home, lifting it off the foundation and dashing it to bits. They lost everything except a few personal items they were able to find in the neighborhood (the scabbard of my great grandfather's Masonic sword being the most valuable of them - mostly it was just letters and some clothes). And their lives. If they hadn't had a storm cellar (and that's one reason they are called that - tornadoes, hurricanes, etc.) I might not be here today.

    Requiring a cellar does not seem onerous to developers and makes sense in areas that experience these events with a certain frequency. Car makers complained about seatbelts and the cost it would add to vehicles if they were required, but most people today would not suggest we do away with them. I think that was a good analogy. As an aside, my father worked in the Air Force in the mid 1950s developing the national seatbelt standards that were adopted and required by all manufacturers selling cars in the US. It involved some gruesome work...

    Lastly, as far as building material, while block, brick or other masonry may be safe if the structure is not shifted, should any movement actually occur, these types of buildings can be deadly. Many people die in earthquakes around the world because they live in masonry buildings that collapse and crush the occupants during earthquakes. I would wonder to what degree this is a concern in a tornado-prone area. When a roof is torn off by the wind, or a large flying object crashes into a house, is there a danger of the structural integrity being compromised?
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  9. #9
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    There is a problem I see with "requiring" a cellar or safe room. It will raise the cost of construction, raising rents or purchase prices. Where do we make the cutoff? If we do this for safety reasons, why not also require fire suppression systems, or as the OP suggested, ban certain kinds of construction? Despite the fact that they make the news, most tornados do little damage. Do we raise the cost of a home by several thousand to address the relatively minute chance of it being hit by a tornado?

    People have a right to make choices for themselves. If they are concerned about theft they can buy a safe. If they are worried about being struck by lightening they can install a lightening rod. If they are worried about floods they can build on high land. If they are worried about tornados they can choose to buy or build a home with a basement. We don't need to insert our own requirements into their decisions.
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    Cyburbian Queen B's avatar
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    Living here in Tornado Alley I believe that I can respond to this. Most people do think about tornado safety but some do make the choice to live without that safety net. Yes basements might save you, if it is the best chance you have. But during the recent storms basements have not even been enough. Buildings implode or can be completely sucked away. Safe rooms might really be the way to go. The old fashion storm cellar is still the best idea. Get underground.

    After the Greensburg tornado there have been many new types of construction there that tought being tornado proof / resistant.

    In Chapman however the distruction was almost totally in the floodplain.
    So if you go to the basement during the storm and the flood waters come up. Where is the safest location?

    Then you have Florida. They actually have the highest number of tornados each year. But in most places as I understand they cant have basements. So what do you do there??

    So since there are many different theories it is hard to know what is the best.

  11. #11
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by Queen B View post
    Then you have Florida. They actually have the highest number of tornados each year. But in most places as I understand they cant have basements. So what do you do there??

    So since there are many different theories it is hard to know what is the best.
    FL has very few strong tornadoes. Most of them are EF1 and some EF2. Much different animal than the Joplin EF5, which I'd wager took out some safe rooms, which is why you want some room in your root cellar for the whole family and pets. Small lots in cities would want a safe room.

    Nonetheless, it is easy to see that we will be discussing this wrt policy much more in the future as the planet's weather changes from man-made climate change.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian
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    I think my main argument here, is not just for safety, but that we just need to reject the balloon-framed house because it's not safe, it's not environmental, it encourages sprawl etc...

    I understand not everyone can afford a better house, but our biggest problem here in the United States is that we assume everyone should have their own single-family, detached house with 1 acre and a white picket fence. For those that cannot afford the single-family house, we need to have decent alternatives. We shouldn't be having singles or even (I would argue) couples w/o kids living in sf-detached homes.

    I would argue that about 90% of our developed area here in the Midwest is made up of sprawling neighborhoods with these balloon-framed homes. Our cities are an absolute eyesore and are gawdawful in comparison to many other cities.
    On top of that, yes, it is true that an individuals chance of getting hit is low. But I've lived here my whole life, and you are absolutely guaranteed that there are going to be several times a year where developed areas get hit. That is just a guarantee. The destruction and lives lost is only going to increase the further we extend our sprawl out.

    Think about it, imagine (for example), if Joplin were built like a traditional city would have been (ignoring the last century of city-building). Chances are that the buildings would have been much more sturdy, and the city would have been dense enough that if you look at the tornado's path, it would have missed the developed area.

    Our current state of development means we are spread out to about 1,500 people per square mile. For a metro area the size of Kansas City (2 million), that is 1,225 square miles of developed area. Yet if it were built entirely by traditional methods of city-building, only about 40-50 square miles would be developed in the area. (and they would be spread-out towns/villages, not contiguous)

    Add onto our problem of urban sprawl the fact that all our buildings are built of wood and plastic, you have many disasters waiting to happen.

    The basements of the past all had little shelter areas. Our home has a shower where most of the walls are concrete (including the ceiling), and it was built in the 60s. Yet most modern homes I've been inside don't have those safe areas, and are simply open basements without any shelter.

    Yes, the tornado that hit Joplin was massive. But no matter how massive the tornado is, there are ways to preserve lives. You can guarantee the roof will come off (unless it's solid concrete) during a storm like that, but that doesn't mean that you should allow the walls to collapse and shred to pieces as well, and it doesn't mean we ought to require that only a tiny room be safe.

    I just feel this is further proof of how dangerous and destructive our suburban gluttony is here in the United States. Why can't we understand that we need to end it for our own safety? Shelter is a basic human need, and yet we are even doing that poorly these days...

  13. #13
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by TradArch12 View post
    ...I understand not everyone can afford a better house, but our biggest problem here in the United States is that we assume everyone should have their own single-family, detached house with 1 acre and a white picket fence. For those that cannot afford the single-family house, we need to have decent alternatives. We shouldn't be having singles or even (I would argue) couples w/o kids living in sf-detached homes....
    Now we are going to dictate how people can live? Married couples with children get houses. for everyone else it is an apartment. Hope that you don't lose a spouse, get divorced, or have your children grow up and move into apartments of their own.
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  14. #14
    Cyburbian Linda_D's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by TradArch12 View post
    I think my main argument here, is not just for safety, but that we just need to reject the balloon-framed house because it's not safe, it's not environmental, it encourages sprawl etc...
    Ah, now we get down to the real reason you think banning balloon-framed houses is a good idea ... it's simply another urbanist attempt to force everybody to live according to the way you and other like-minded people think they should live. Your proposal has absolutely nothing to do with safety as you yourself note that older homes had basements where people could shelter. If you were truly interested in safety, you would argue for mandating old fashioned basements, safe-rooms, or other shelters.

  15. #15
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by Cardinal View post
    Now we are going to dictate how people can live? Married couples with children get houses. for everyone else it is an apartment. Hope that you don't lose a spouse, get divorced, or have your children grow up and move into apartments of their own.
    Here we go again... I'm sorry, but I've found that sort of argument so irrational over the years. All it simply is, is an accusation against urbanists that we are too "oppressive" or "fascist" when it comes to encoding urbanism. I can easily turn it around against you and tell you that the way we live now is actually forcing and dictating how people live. According to the American Community Survey by the US Census Bureau, about 63.1% of housing units in the United States are single-family detached units.
    Yet, if we look at Europe and other parts of the world, the numbers are much more balanced. People in the United States are told that the "American Dream" is to have a big house with a big yard with lots of stuff. You aren't given a choice for anything else because developers believe that is what everyone wants. Yet humans in the United States are the same humans that live elsewhere in the world.

    Being "free" doesn't mean that you should be allowed to do whatever you want, with whatever you want, whenever you want. The environment does exist, and there are consequences for our actions. We do have psychology, and there are consequences for what we do and how we act.

    I would argue that sprawl, and our current way of life in America is the primary cause for most of our problems, whether it relates to health, psychology, behavior, economy, environmental, etc...

    I lived in Greece for 3 months, and you will notice there, even with a poor economy, that the people are very relaxed. Most people do live in apartments, but there are a lot that are able to live in the countryside, in the mountains and away from the city. And because of the compact-ness of the city, you could walk for 30 minutes (or drive for 5-10) and be outside of the city and in the countryside, the natural landscape is easily accessable and well preserved. Greece is also extremely safe (not counting Athens or Thessaloniki), I was able to walk around town at night with no problem. You would often see women walking alone down dark streets... Violent crime isn't really a problem there. People in Greece are also pretty fit and healthy, they aren't overweight and even the old people get around pretty well. Greeks also have a lot more empathy than Americans, if they see someone begging on the sidewalk, they are more willing (than Americans) to stop and talk, and give them money. One of the questions I got pretty often in Greece, was why America is so violent and dangerous. One could extend that line of questioning and ask why Americans are so unhappy and depressed compared to other nations.

    Good, smart, traditional urbanism isn't oppressive, it is actually more liberating than our current culture is.

    In this thread, I'm arguing that on top of all these factors, the fact that urban sprawl has put so many people in danger whether it's tornados or hurricanes should be more than enough evidence that it is something we need to stop. The balloon-framed house is not just an environmental and social disaster, it's a disaster when it comes to our own safety as well.

  16. #16
    Cyburbian
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    If we're talking about safety, we may as well ban all the mobile homes which are so prevalent in some parts of the country. Any sort of natural disaster will take them out easier than any other structure out there as a result of building materials and lack of any permanent foundation. Then there's the issue that they're not built for permanent use but that's exactly what people use them for. As a result, many older mobile homes are barely holding together.

    I honestly don't think mobile homes are safe at all but there's little chance of banning them outright since it is the only type of housing people can afford in poor rural areas. I can't count how many times I've seen mobile homes get destroyed where a normal home may have survived. Like just on the local news a few weeks ago, a single tree fell in a storm and killed two people in a mobile home. The tree literally cut the mobile home in half.

    Mobile homes are very common in the Southeast which also happens to be place where tornados occur on a regular basis. Like I'm sure some of the deaths in the North Carolina and Alabama tornadoes this year were just a result of people being caught in mobile homes. An EF1 tornado may damage a regular home but it can destroy a mobile home.
    Last edited by Blide; 28 May 2011 at 4:11 PM.

  17. #17
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by Blide View post
    If we're talking about safety, we may as well ban all the mobile homes which are so prevalent in some parts of the country. Any sort of natural disaster will take them out easier than any other structure out there as a result of building materials and lack of any permanent foundation. Then there's the issue that they're not built for permanent use but that's exactly what people use them for. As a result, many older mobile homes are barely holding together.

    I honestly don't think mobile homes are safe at all but there's little chance of banning them outright since it is the only type of housing people can afford in poor rural areas. I can't count how many times I've seen mobile homes get destroyed where a normal home may have survived. Like just on the local news a few weeks ago, a single tree fell in a storm and killed two people in a mobile home. The tree literally cut the mobile home in half.

    Mobile homes are very common in the Southeast which also happens to be place where tornados occur on a regular basis. Like I'm sure some of the deaths in the North Carolina and Alabama tornadoes this year were just a result of people being caught in mobile homes. An EF1 tornado may damage a regular home but it can destroy a mobile home.
    But think about this: Why is it that most other countries don't have mobile homes? How/why is it that the poor(er) don't live in shoddy mobile homes, yet they also don't live in slums? Consider that even America's "poor" (that is, the lower-class) are actually rich compared to the truly impoverished in the world. If some of our lower-class could be considered "better off" than other countries, how is it that they live in worse housing?
    24% of American households make less than $25,000 a year.
    Consider that single-wide mobile homes have about 1650 sq. ft.
    It isn't too difficult to come up with housing that meets those specifications, whether it's public housing or whether it's small homes. Now, sure it'd be difficult to find a better deal than a mobile home for a couple thousand dollars, but there are ways to come up with housing that can be a good deal for our urban (and rural) poor.

    There are indeed better (and safer) ways of dealing with things. But change will require some discomfort, but becoming a healthier society (or person) always requires a deal of discomfort.

  18. #18
    Cyburbian
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    I definitely don’t disagree with your sentiments toward density and sprawl but I’m just trying to be realistic. What you’re proposing would likely require government subsidies which are a non-starter currently. Not surprising that the places that utilize mobile homes the most are also the same places where they’re most against government interventions.

    I think one of the more ironic things after natural disasters is that the displaced people live in FEMA trailer parks. Like in Alabama, a bunch have popped up recently. They’re obviously not meant to be permanent but as was seen with Katrina, a lot of people will probably be living in them for a long time.

    Here’s an interesting story I saw this week from an Alabama town hit by a tornado. Basically the city’s ordinance had banned singlewides but unfortunately FEMA only provides that type of trailer. ~200 people showed up to the meeting to protest an ordinance that had been on the books since 1957.

    I really don't know what the answer is. It'd be nice if people wanted to develop in a denser fashion and in a way that better took into account local environmental hazards but it's just politically unfeasible in most parts of the country. It takes a large scale disaster for anything to change but I don't think a tornado outbreak is enough to change anything.

    Probably worth noting though, increased densities with an EF5 tornado, like the one that hit Joplin, is still a recipe for disaster. Nothing constructed above ground could reliably hold up to one of those. Lower densities would actually be advantageous with strong tornadoes for that very reason. No other place on the planet has to deal with tornadoes as much as the US does.

  19. #19
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by TradArch12 View post
    For those that cannot afford the single-family house, we need to have decent alternatives. We shouldn't be having singles or even (I would argue) couples w/o kids living in sf-detached homes.



    I just feel this is further proof of how dangerous and destructive our suburban gluttony is here in the United States. Why can't we understand that we need to end it for our own safety?.
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  20. #20
    Cyburbian Linda_D's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by TradArch12 View post
    But think about this: Why is it that most other countries don't have mobile homes? How/why is it that the poor(er) don't live in shoddy mobile homes, yet they also don't live in slums?
    They don't? The slums and shanty-towns around most second and third-world cities are infamous.

    As for Europe ...

    Photo Essay by Jean Roder

    1 Billion Slum Dwellers

    Then there's the grim, soulless apartment complexes built by the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe ...

  21. #21
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by Linda_D View post
    They don't? The slums and shanty-towns around most second and third-world cities are infamous.

    As for Europe ...

    Photo Essay by Jean Roder

    1 Billion Slum Dwellers

    Then there's the grim, soulless apartment complexes built by the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe ...
    Linda, the impoverished that live in the slums don't compare to America's Lower Class. Even America's lower class is more well-off financially than those that live in those slums. My point wasn't suggesting that Europe doesn't have slums (i've seen them), my point is that those of equivalent income in Europe have better dwelling places than mobile homes. And yes, as cruddy as the complexes in former communist lands are, they are still better than a mobile home when it comes to safety against weather.

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    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by TradArch12 View post
    My point wasn't suggesting that Europe doesn't have slums (i've seen them), my point is that those of equivalent income in Europe have better dwelling places than mobile homes. And yes, as cruddy as the complexes in former communist lands are, they are still better than a mobile home when it comes to safety against weather.
    How are you going to force low-income agents into such housing? What are your proposals to change their minds? How will you convince them that a small chance of weather risk is a better choice than a higher chance of unhappiness after being forced in such housing?

  23. #23
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    There are other merits to mobile/modular housing, particularly in rural areas where land economics / housing demand makes stick-built housing unfeasible.
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  24. #24
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by ColoGI View post
    How are you going to force low-income agents into such housing? What are your proposals to change their minds? How will you convince them that a small chance of weather risk is a better choice than a higher chance of unhappiness after being forced in such housing?
    ColoGI, I'm not recommending those types of housing, I don't know where you got that from.
    There are much better ways, traditional urbanism shows that the poor are able to have a quality place to live, even right next to the rich. We know better than to isolate the poor like in modernist housing projects.

    Modernist housing projects and mobile homes aren't the only places the poor can live in. There are good, (and better) traditional alternatives...

    Lastly, regarding Soviet-Era housing...
    I have a close friend who lived most of her life in one of these housing projects (in a city composed mostly of them) and according to her, it wasn't the depressing, horrible thing that most of us think of them as. She lived in the Russian city Naberezhnye Chelny...
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naberezhnye_Chelny
    http://maps.google.com/maps?q=Nabere...-8&sa=N&tab=il
    But while it may work there, I don't think that works in America, in fact, I think the last 50-60 years has proven that it doesn't work in America.

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    FEMA Independent Study avaialable - http://training.fema.gov/IS/crslist.asp

    IS-8.a Building for the Earthquakes of Tomorrow: Complying with Executive Order 12699

    IS-279 Engineering Principles and Practices for Retrofitting Flood-Prone Residential Structures

    IS-386 Introduction to Residential Coastal Construction

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