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Passive Survivability Revisited: The Hurriquake Nail
Julia Levitt, 6 Jan 09

According to the research-based predictions of urban affairs and planning expert Arthur C. Nelson about half the buildings that Americans will use in 2030 will have been built after 2000. This gives us Americans an opportunity to effect massive change on the built environment if we make deliberate choices starting right now.

hurriquakeNail%20copy.jpgI recently came across a post about the Hurriquake Nail on the always-inspiring tech blog NextBigFuture. The Hurriquake, designed by Bostitch engineer Ed Sutt, is a study in practical world-changing innovation: it combines simple building technologies like threading and a spiral shank, placed at exactly the right points along the nail so that it anchors deeply into wood, holding steady where it needs to most, and creates wobble-free joints at the points where wood planks are most likely to begin to weaken.

According to Next Big Future, the nails (which fit into a modern nail gun), "add $15 to the price of a home and make a house 50% more resistant to a hurricane or strong winds (or over pressures from a nuke)."

To underscore the importance of this statement:

If every building could survive 5PSI then there would be no building failures for category 5 hurricanes or less and potentially no deaths outside the 5PSI radius of a nuclear blast for anyone inside a building. This would reduce the casualties from a nuclear bomb by half or more.

This thought led me to revisit the concept of passive survivability -- an idea we've discussed on Worldchanging here and here. Buildings that can withstand forces of nature and war will mean fewer devastated families and landscapes in the face of the unthinkable. Getting all new buildings up to this standard would be ideal and not out of reach; targeting necessary facilities such as hospitals, which are most needed in the aftermath of disaster, is a logical starting point.

The Hurriquake nail is not brand-new; it has been widely used since 2006. In fact, NextBigFuture goes on to profile several other developments -- including blast-resistant wallpaper -- that could help secure structural integrity without leveling and rebuilding from the ground up. But I think it is a particularly apt example of the kinds of innovations we will need in the coming decades Taking advantage of the next 20 years to redefine our built environment as one that works harder to serve its inhabitants while extracting a lesser load from the planet will mean investing heavily in technologies like the Hurriquake nail, which provide the most improvement at the most accessible cost in both dollars and labor, and which can easily be integrated into built environments around the world.

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This sounds too much like optimization in isolation for my comfort.

Nails are only one small part of a highly-complex, adaptive living system, a home. Just as small misses in an enhanced thermal envelope magnify deterioration and cause issues, I would guess that merely making tougher nails creates other unintended troubles.

Posted by: Josh Stack on 6 Jan 09

I think this isn't nearly as useful by itself as some of the top-down ideas proposed in the 1970s by Christopher Alexander and his team in the Pattern Language. Also, the blog at The Original Green points out that engineering that is ugly, and isn't coupled with beautiful design, is doomed to failure. A building may collapse for want of a PSI5 nail, but it may be torn down because it's still ugly.

Posted by: Andrew Watt on 7 Jan 09

Alex Wilson over at Energy Building News has been thinking about passive survivability for a long time. He's working on getting the concept into building codes. His latest article on that subject is at

Posted by: gmoke on 7 Jan 09

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