Advocate helps research reach roofs of Dufferin County

As a former building official for Dufferin County, Mike Giles saw a lot of structures go up during his 30-year career. As a fifth-generation resident of Ontario's ‘Tornado Alley,' he's seen a lot come down, as well.

"I don't know if I've been lucky enough, or unfortunate enough, to have lived through three tornadoes in my lifetime," Giles said.

One in particular stands out.

Video: Western University researcher Gregory Kopp has proven installing hurricane clips and longer nails in roof sheathing can make homes resilient to 90-95% of most tornadoes.

Photo of a home damaged by debris from a tornado in Angus, Ontario

Photo: damaged homes in Angus, ON.

On May 31, 1985, Giles was sitting in a dentist's chair when he saw the sky go from "super sunny to the colour of midnight." Yet, like many that day, he had no idea just how dark things would get.

By the time he left the dental office, it was sunny again, so when the call came to help a friend in Grand Valley Township clean up from the storm, "I thought I was going to help put a few shingles on," he said.

The drive there revealed some surprises – siding and insulation in the trees, a barren two-kilometre stretch where 100-year-old maples stood just hours before. When Giles saw his friend standing before what was left of his house, the extent of the damage hit home.

"The roof was completely gone, two walls from the rafters down to the floor were gone. The kitchen, brand new, was not touched. You looked through his house, and all you can see was his kitchen. I was in shock," Giles said. "Everything he owned was ruined. His wife and his children had gone to the basement. At least they were okay."

Others weren't so lucky on that day, since dubbed ‘Black Friday.'

Of 14 that ravaged the region, the Grand Valley tornado destroyed 66 buildings. Barrie was the hardest hit, with eight people dead and hundreds more injured.

"It was a nightmare," Giles said.

Many homes in the same area were hit hard again by tornadoes in 1996 and 1998. And when a tornado touched down just 40 minutes up the road in 2014, a Toronto Star headline asked, "Could Angus tornado damage have been prevented?"

Giles took note. And action.

He went on to implement the Dufferin County Hurricane Clip Rebate Program, the first of its kind, and one that directly applied the research of Western Civil and Environmental Engineering professor Gregory Kopp to build safer, more resilient homes.

Giles "never wanted to see anything like it again."

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Photo of Mike Giles and Greg Kopp

Photo: Greg Kopp and Mike Giles

"Greg's comments in the Star got things rolling," Giles said, referencing the article in which Kopp didn't mince words, noting the destruction caused by an EF-2 tornado "could have been prevented."

Twelve roofs came off in Angus, unleashing a wave of damage totalling $35 million.

Kopp's research has shown hurricane clips – small pieces of metal engineered to bind the roof rafters or trusses to the top plate of a wall – and longer nails in the roof sheathing, could have held those roofs down. And he had been proposing both measures to the building industry for years.

"I read it with great interest," Giles said, "I thought, ‘This is a no-brainer. He's absolutely correct.'"

Kopp also spoke of roof trusses missing the three toe-nails required by the building code.

"After seeing the picture of trusses, with one nail, two nails, no nails, I went out and bought my four building inspectors a three-step stool," Giles continued. "I said, ‘I want you to check every rafter and truss that's built into the top plate.'"

But he didn't stop there.

He contacted Kopp and introduced himself. What followed was a tour of Western's Three Little Pigs Project at the Insurance Research Lab for Better Homes, where Kopp's team subjects full-sized and scale-model homes to winds of epic proportions. The facilities – and the research – blew Giles away.

Kopp showed how, during hurricanes or tornadoes, strong winds blow over peaked roofs in a way similar to air flowing over the curved wings of an airplane, exerting an upward lift on structures. He also demonstrated how hurricane clips, at approximately $1 each, act like seatbelts and hold the roof down, significantly enhancing the structural integrity of a building.

"I totally believe in Greg's research," Giles said. "These clips work and can significantly reduce the risk of injuries and the costs of damage when a building is subjected to high winds."

Giles returned from the tour so impassioned, he "wanted to pass a bylaw in Dufferin to make everybody install the clips." However, that would mean superseding the building code – not a viable option.

"The Ontario Building Code, for whatever reason, has not made hurricane straps mandatory. It's not an expensive thing to do," Giles said. "It became a bit of a pet peeve of mine, and I thought, ‘Leave it with me.'"

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Map: Dufferin County, Ontario, Canada

It turned out time, and an unprecedented period of growth, was on Giles' side.

"In 2014-15, building went crazy in the northern part of the county, like nobody expected," Giles explained, and the county saw a significant increase in its building reserve funds. With Bill 124 mandating those funds be used for operations of the building department (rather than infrastructure), Giles saw the opportunity to develop an incentive program to entice builders and homebuilders to install hurricane clips.

He began to lobby county council; he had a captive audience.

Dufferin County's high elevation makes the area a target for heavy winds and many council members had seen the same devastation that haunted Giles. With a notable increase in the size and frequency of wind storms in the area, they were open to sustainable solutions that would help build a better, safer Dufferin.

After formally presenting Kopp's research and resilience measures, Giles proposed the county subsidize a hurricane clip rebate program. Council agreed – a $3 rebate would be provided for every $1 hurricane clip installed.

When the Institute of Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR) caught wind of Giles' initiative, they came onboard as a partner, kicking in an additional $1.50 per clip.

"Nothing even close to it exists anywhere else in the country," stressed Glen McGillivray, ICLR Managing Director. "Because Dufferin is not legally able to make hurricane clips mandatory by law, they did the next best thing by incentivizing builders to use them. The effect is essentially the same, but there is more buy in from builders to use the clips because they are not being forced."

Both McGillivray and Kopp advised Giles in developing the program, which included providing information for a brochure and video to promote awareness of the risks of high winds on unsecured roofs, and the value of the clips in protecting the structural integrity of a building.

Today, the Dufferin County Hurricane Clip Rebate Program gives property owners or builders (whomever holds the permit) $4.50 for each hurricane clip installed and inspected during the construction of new homes, additions or renovations. These structures are being tracked, so resilience can be assessed following future wind events.

"The program took off," Giles said. "We advertised the hell out of it. Every permit that went out, we included a brochure. We pretty much said, ‘We'll pay you.'"

Since its launch as a pilot program in January 2017, 166 structures have had more than 8,000 hurricane clips installed. This past April, Dufferin County adopted a formal policy that will see the rebate program continue.

"Mike Giles really blazed an important new trail with this program and made Dufferin a leader in wind resilient construction in Canada," McGillivray said.

Not a bad legacy for Giles, who retired from his post last December.

"It's Greg's research being applied in a meaningful way," Giles said, "and one of the best things I've ever done."