Woodstock. Goderich. Barrie. Angus.
Joplin, Missouri. Moore, Oklahoma.
Puerto Rico.

Whether it’s up the road, around the corner, or across the world, we’ve all been struck by the damage, devastation and loss that comes from tornadoes and hurricanes.

Weather experts warn as the impact of climate change increases, so too will the frequency and intensity of severe wind events. Add to that a growing population moving into coastal cities, and you have a perfect storm.

Rather than be victims of these so-called ‘acts of God,’ leaving our families, possessions and shelters at risk, Western professor Gregory Kopp has proven there are simple, cost-effective measures to improve the resilience of our homes and our communities.

Building Resilience presents his solutions, gained from years of research testing homes in Western’s Boundary Layer Wind Tunnel and The Insurance Research Lab for Better Homes, and stories of his work being applied in Canada and around the world.

* * *

Stephen Bendo hadn't given the weather warnings much heed when he picked his sons up from daycare that afternoon.

He still wasn't concerned when his oldest pulled him away from making dinner to come look at the green sky. Over and over, back and forth from the kitchen to the front room he'd go, assuring his son things were fine, having looked clear down to the end of his street, seeing only what looked like heavy rain approaching from the distance.

But his son became increasingly excited, working his brother up, too, and wearing Bendo's patience down.

"Enough is enough, go play in the basement!"

It proved to be a well-timed command. As Bendo turned back toward the kitchen, he saw a neighbour's roof. And it was flying, right through his backyard.

It was one of a dozen roofs that came off that evening, as a tornado ripped through the town of Angus, Ont., blowing out windows and tearing up fences, leaving 100 battered homes and 300 displaced people in its wake. Residents of Stonemount Crescent were the hardest hit, describing their neighbourhood as "a war zone" as they grasped to fathom a level of destruction they'd never seen before.

"It was unbelievable. Unbelievable," Bendo said.

But for Western Civil and Environmental Engineering professor Greg Kopp, the debris in the aftermath revealed familiar patterns that made it all too plausible. Within an hour of his team's damage survey, he pronounced what he'd sadly said before:

"This could have been prevented."

Gregory Kopp and his research team at Western University on the steps in from fonr of the Spencer Engineering building.


Professor Gregory Kopp has seen the wind - and the havoc it can wreak. His team has proven simple, cost-effective measures can improve the resilience of our homes in the face of our changing climate. Testing homes in Western’s Boundary Layer Wind Tunnel and The Insurance Research Lab for Better Homes, the results of his team’s research are being applied around the world.

As a director of Western's Boundary Layer Wind Tunnel, lead researcher for the Three Little Pigs Project at The Insurance Research Lab for Better Homes and former Canada Research Chair in Wind Engineering, Kopp understands the effects of wind on houses.

It wasn't something the Winnipeg native, who earned his PhD in mechanical engineering, originally set out to do. "Very few engineers would," he said. "Houses are designed, not engineered."

Houses may lack the "wow factor" of mile-long bridges or super-tall buildings, but Kopp soon found out from a societal point of view, the damage they incurred in natural disasters was huge.

It was Kopp's passion for fluid mechanics and wind turbulence that brought him to Western Engineering's Boundary Layer Wind Tunnel in 1997, where he joined a long line of ‘wind wizards,' a title befitted to wind tunnel founder Alan Davenport.

Davenport, the father of wind engineering in Canada, was the first in a series of Western wind pioneers whose research made great impact globally; applying his findings from the wind tunnel to the design of the world's tallest and longest wind-sensitive structures. He also led the way in the study of wind-related natural disasters, forging partnerships to create the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR).

Video: Greg Kopp on how Western researchers are engineering more resilient homes and communities.

"The ICLR was really instrumental in looking at houses," Kopp explained, saying the institute was also instrumental in helping him, as a young researcher, decide his future. "I only got into disaster work because the ICLR funded us for a project on houses. It just grew from there."

He'd go on to become one of the core researchers at the Insurance Research Lab for Better Homes, the first facility of its kind to subject full-scale houses to pressures that simulate the effects of winds as strong as a Category 5 hurricane.

It was one thing to test wind in a controlled environment, but Kopp remembers thinking, "If I'm going to break stuff in the lab, I really should go look at it in the field."

He got his chance in 2005. Hurricane Dennis was on its way, and researchers from the University of Florida invited Kopp to come put up towers to measure wind speeds. He still remembers the sting of the rain pelting his face as he put anemometers up the night before Dennis slammed the state.

"We returned the next morning and it was chaos. I remember the first person we saw. She worked on the beach and was now unemployed because the restaurant she worked in was gone. I'll never forget the expression on her face.

"It changed my life. I realized what we did in the lab could make a difference in people's lives."

Since then, Kopp's larger calling has been convincing building and industry officials that, for a couple hundred dollars – pennies a year over the lifespan of a house – they can prevent millions of dollars in devastation and save countless lives. All by following what the research tells us.

Today, after years of trying, Kopp's ideas are being implemented in Canada and around the world.

* * *

"A lot of what happened in Angus could have been mitigated."

Kopp shared his opinion with a Toronto Star reporter not long after the EF2 twister touched down in the central Ontario community, June 17, 2014, causing $35 million in insurable damage.

"Prior to Angus, I was less willing to call it out in the media," he said. But, he was tired of, well, spitting into the wind. "When you're in a disaster zone, you see real people affected. It affects you profoundly. I like getting my students there, so they understand what we do as engineers because they'll never forget."

For more than a decade, Kopp had seen repetitive roof failures and had been presenting builders and government officials – time and again, to no avail – with simple, affordable measures he's proven would have spared those homes.

Field surveys of past tornadoes, including those in Vaughan, Ont., just north of Toronto, five years prior, had shown the weak link in the roofs was the nails that secured the roof trusses to the top plate of the walls.

"It's important to take what we see in the field and relate that to what we see in the lab," Kopp said.

By connecting the data, he works to inform policy that will make homes safer and more resilient. His research shows tornadoes create strong upward lift pressure on peaked roofs, causing them to tear away from the walls of the house.

"People think the walls are holding the roof up," he said. "In tornadoes, we need to think about holding that roof down."

Once the roof is off, it can fly through the air, along with other materials ripped from inside the home, causing widespread damage – and death.

"It's that airborne debris that kills people," Kopp said.

Without a roof to protect the home, he added, water and wind wreak further havoc on valuable contents inside.

To keep roofs on, Kopp has offered up simple – and inexpensive – solutions.

Video: Hurricane straps are central to Greg Kopp’s research – a simple and inexpensive way to keep roofs on homes during extreme weather events.

He's proven hurricane straps or clips – thin pieces of metal wrapped over top of the truss of the roof and connected directly to the walls – increase resilience, keeping roofs on houses for up to an EF2 tornado, the very kind that hit Angus.

He also suggests using longer, 2.5-inch nails in the roof sheathing, rather than the 2-inch nails required by the building code, and placing them every six inches, rather than the current foot, apart. "The longer nails and tighter nailing pattern more than doubles the strength of the roof sheathing against uplift forces, and the difference is probably pennies per house."

The Ontario Building Code currently mandates three toe-nails at each connecting point between the trusses and wall tops. But Kopp's research has shown many roof failures are due to inadequate construction, lack of proper connections and lack of enforcement of the code.

"My forensic team knows to go in there and find the roof trusses, and see what nails were used, where they all were, and what was left. In Angus, there were zero, or one or two, and rarely three nails in the connections," Kopp said.

Kopp believes hurricane straps and longer nails would have mitigated that and kept those roofs on. He also believes the only way to get builders to adopt his recommendations is through a change to the code.

* * *

Western PhD candidate Sarah Stevenson and Mathew Lynch on the ground in San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico.

Photo: Western PhD candidate Sarah Stevenson and Mathew Lynch on the ground in San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico.

Amending the code, which is governed by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs, is a slow process, requiring input and buy-in from stakeholders, including building and industry officials.

In Kopp's experience, most builders are quick to cite cost as a sticking point, though his studies show these enhancements would add much less than 1 per cent to the price of a new home.

Some builders, however, are open to change.

Mindful of the increased intensity and duration of storms in the area, and the roof damage that will come with accompanying uplifts, St. Thomas, Ont., builder Doug Tarry plans to start installing hurricane clips soon.

He understands the need to install hurricane straps in the homes he's rebuilding as part of his Hope Agua Vita mission in Puerto Rico following the devastation of Hurricane Maria and is confident the resilience measures employed there can be adopted cost-efficiently back home. One of Kopp's PhD students, Sarah Stevenson, MESc'17, went along on his recent trip, teaching residents the importance of installing the straps and explored first-hand how Kopp's solutions can be applied in the field.

Tarry also hears, as a member of a builders committee reviewing the next cycle of proposed building code changes, his industry peers' reluctance to install the clips.

"If you look at how much wind damage we are having, in relation to first-hand experience, it is relatively low," he explained. "If you look at it from that perspective, there's going to be a lot of resistance. But if you look at it as future protection from ongoing climate change, the guys that get that are going to be more receptive to it."

Going ahead with the clips will make it harder for him "to compete against guys who are basically building to the code," Tarry said. "It's pretty tough to say to the customer, ‘Well, this is a better roof because I've got these hurricane clips, but it's not in the code' and the customer asks, ‘Why doesn't everyone have them?' In a 90-second pitch on a sales floor, you have to make your explanation and don't have time to explain everything."

Kopp appreciates most new home owners would rather talk about installing granite countertops, rather than hurricane straps. But with more frequent and severe storms, and insurance claims for weather damage escalating, "we have to deal with resilience," he said. "We can't, every time there's a storm, put our houses in the landfill."

* * *

Western Engineering Professor Greg Kopp and Former Chief Building Official for Dufferin County, Mike Giles.

Photo: Western Engineering Professor Greg Kopp and Former Chief Building Official for Dufferin County, Mike Giles.

Historically, Kopp knows it will take a widespread change in societal thinking to force changes to the building code.

"Original building codes were designed as a ‘life safety' concept, with fire safety being the driving factor," he said. "People were dying in burning buildings and society said, ‘Enough is enough. Change.'"

Forty years ago, no one was overly concerned about energy consumption, but now that it's an economic and environmental issue, there's a certain cache to having an energy star-rated home. "We now have strict energy guidelines with regard to insulation and air movement," Kopp said.

There are some signs of change happening, albeit slowly, when it comes to resilience.

In August 1992, Hurricane Andrew struck Florida, resulting in 65 deaths. Local and state officials ensured changes were made to the building code – many of which paid off when Irma hit in 2017.

City officials in Moore, Okla., were moved to enhance their building codes after two violent tornados in May 2013 resulted in 27 fatalities and an estimated $3 billion in damages.

Kopp and Paul Kovacs, from the ICLR, teamed up with Kevin Simmons, an economics professor at Austin College in Sherman, Texas to see if measures taken in Moore – including hurricane straps and stronger garage doors – would have cost benefits across the entire state of Oklahoma. Their published findings showed the new codes delivered a 3:1 ratio of initial cost to savings over a lifetime of resilient measures.

"It's cost effective for the State of Oklahoma, who do lot of things that make sense for their area," Kopp said. "All we're saying here is, ‘We need some longer nails for the roof sheathing and we need hurricane straps in the roof', which is about $200 per house."

It was grassroots advocacy, and an appeal to consumers' wallets, which has seen those two measures included on 166 new structures in Ontario's Dufferin County. Former county building official Mike Giles, inspired by Kopp's comments about Angus in the Star, and subsequently by his research, implemented a successful hurricane clip rebate program in his community.

"It's exciting to see our research applied there," Kopp said.

* * *

Four years after speaking out in the Toronto Star, Kopp made headlines again this past spring.

As lead researcher for the Northern Ontario Tornadoes Project, he discovered the tornado outbreak in southern Quebec last year was the largest ever recorded in Canada. Rather than the four reported, he showed 11 tornadoes touched down that day, suggesting extreme storms are more common here than previously thought.

He's hopeful this information will improve tornado prediction warnings and prompt more new home buyers to demand the resiliency standards he's long been advocating.

"My goal in my research is to keep people safe in affordable homes. It's where our families are. It's where our identity is. Our photos, our memories – all these things happen in our houses. It's something most of us have in common."

While he's shown 90-95 per cent of our homes can be built to withstand an EF2 tornado, he also sees the need to consider our public infrastructure when it comes to larger events. If you have an EF5, and it goes over your town, he stressed, you need to have your hospitals survive.

"This is something, as a society, we have to decide. What can, and what can't, we afford? When things happen, there can be changes and we can say, ‘This isn't good enough anymore.'"