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Sheltering in Place: Are Our Homes the Shelter We Need?

Much of the world is now focused on “sheltering in place.” This phrase was once lingo used almost exclusively by the people whose job it is to prepare for emergencies. Now, we all have that job.

Yet most shelter-in-place conversations have very little to say about a critical part of this action: the shelter itself. Helpful guides, such as from the federal government and Vox, provide tips for sheltering in place. However, most of these focus on the food, medical, and emergency supplies to have on hand, or the tools to stave off our boredom. Those tips are important, but this whole strategy depends on the actual, physical shelter, our homes. How can we be prepared if we haven’t addressed our housing?

Videos from the 1950s designed to prepare children to shield themselves from nuclear attacks suggested they get under their desks with the phrase “duck and cover.” The videos are darkly laughable now since their guidance provided so little actual hope of protection.

As we become experts in sheltering for this crisis, and look ahead to a likely future of many more crises, will we look back at the current lack of “shelter” advice with similar chagrin?

To be clear: for most of us our homes provide adequate shelter. This article is mostly about further home improvements to consider in the longer-term.

This is a particular moment in time when concerns about our homes become more recognizable and acute. As people are spending almost all their time in their homes, cooking more, and often hosting more family members in a single space, it’s important to be aware of the impacts and opportunities, especially for vulnerable populations.

Given the limitations created by our current situation, some vulnerable populations will want to consider actions they can take now to make improvements, recognizing that simple do-it-yourself measures may be all that’s presently available, but keeping other improvements in mind for when the future allows.


Shelter Priorities: Home Essentials

Here are three priorities to consider when you think of your home as a shelter:

  1. Protection from the elements: The most basic function of a shelter is keeping us safe from extreme temperatures, wind, rain, and snow. For Americans, at least, most homes manage the basics here. But if you go a step deeper, our homes should also keep us comfortable. Comfort, and by extension our well-being, has a real impact on our mental health and our ability to focus on the tasks at hand. This holds true whether that’s online schooling, working from home, or navigating the emotional terrain of our cooped-up families.
  2. Health and safety: We want our homes to be havens, but they are often sources of hazards. Many of these dangers become more acute when we stay at home for long periods. Some of the appliances in our homes—such as gas stoves—are often a major source of air pollution, which can create asthma and respiratory triggers. That’s bad enough by itself, but today that also makes us more vulnerable to the coronavirus.
  3. Power: We rely on energy to get things done and to keep our homes safe from the elements. When we must stay at home, having reliable power becomes even more essential, as we have fewer options to meet those needs when the power goes out. Summer storms, heatwaves, and wildfires (likely to get worse in impending megadroughts), often bring power outages. As the summer approaches this year, the reality is that many of us may still be in lock-down as challenges like these arrive to compound the situation. Will we have access to back-up power sources to provide at least basic electricity needs in an emergency, such as for charging phones to maintain a means of communication?
Homes Are Not All Created Equal

The US Constitution affirms that all people are created equal, but this is not true of our housing. And this is a problem that can be found all over the world. The most glaring example of this is substandard housing that fails to adequately keep out the elements or pests, or where power and water are unavailable, intermittent, or routinely shut off. This creates tremendous vulnerability during a shelter-in-place crisis. Those living in substandard housing bear the worst of this vulnerability.

As a society we can invest in improving housing conditions and the availability of critical infrastructure in cities, in rural settings, and everywhere in between. Fortunately, some affordable housing developers are national leaders in creating efficient, healthy homes.

As a society, we must recognize that some homes being vulnerable makes us all more vulnerable. The more that people living in poverty have safe, healthy homes, the less likely they will fill the hospitals or leave their “shelter” because it’s not sufficient for sheltering in place.


Priority Actions for Making Our Homes Better Shelters

As our governments invest in crisis responses and investments in our infrastructure—and as many of us consider what we can do in our own homes—here are a few priorities to consider:

  • Health and air quality: The more time we spend in our homes, the more important this issue is. Does anyone in your family have asthma? With many people doing more cooking, are you taking the right precautions around your gas stove? If you have asthma, it’s better to replace your gas stove with an electric option, but at a minimum make sure to use your kitchen fan to ventilate while it’s running, or even open a window while cooking. Have your other gas appliances been checked for combustion safety? Many appliances leak carbon monoxide. At a minimum, get detectors. Better yet, consider removing this source of pollution and going all electric. Are your walls sealed to keep out moisture that can cause mold, or to prevent pests from coming in? Is your home properly ventilated? The US Environmental Protection Agency has useful information for homeowners. The WELL certification standard is a global resource on this topic and includes quick tips to check in your home.
  • Hours of safety: Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and often create power outages. This may be worse during a pandemic when more people are stuck at home. How your home is constructed will have a large impact on how long you can safely shelter in place during extreme temperatures (hot or cold). The more energy efficient your home is, the more hours of safety you’ll have until repairs are done, power is returned, or other plans are implemented. We’ve done preliminary research into the hours of safety homes can provide, but the industry should make this a standard practice so people can prepare accordingly.
  • Power generation: Local solar power (whether on your building or in a local microgrid) can provide critical power needs in emergencies. Unlike a diesel generator, solar panels can provide power for many years without a fuel source—and an added benefit is that they provide power even when there’s no emergency. Combining solar with battery storage clearly provides greater resilience. The economics of this are coming into place, particularly in areas with time-of-use pricing, though even then it’s usually not a full power solution. Nevertheless, many homes with solar but no batteries won’t have any power if the grid goes down because a special inverter or conversion is needed to use that power at home when the grid is down.
  • Code compliance: In much of the world, building codes are non-existent or ignored. Shoring up codes and building practices is an important step in ensuring minimum safety standards for homes. Many western countries have strong codes, but compliance can still be very low, especially for retrofits. The latest energy codes have made major strides to ensure that homes are proper shelters and built to provide more resilience. Widespread adoption of these codes will help create better options for sheltering in place.


What Should We Do?

All of us with a roof over our heads should take a moment to be thankful during this time of quarantine. That said, we have lots of paths forward to further improve our homes so we’re truly ready to shelter in place:

  • Policymakers: Create transparent inventories so residents and the market can understand how homes are performing and where we need to invest in upgrades. Home energy labeling programs have a robust architecture ready to deliver this information, and resilience or indoor air quality measures could be built into them. RMI and Earth Advantage have a new toolkit coming soon on this topic for policymakers.
  • Home improvement contractors: Develop the tools to include these measures in your work. Get your staff trained for quality work and then introduce these concepts into your assessments and pitches. While this field is dramatically slowed down during the stay-at-home orders, video assessments are emerging as a way to offer home assessments and build a pipeline of work once doors reopen.
  • Residents: Ask your contractors about these issues, review the health and safety checklists above, and ask your contractor or utilities about virtual assessments or, if those aren’t available, conduct a basic home energy assessment for yourself. If people in your home experience frequent asthma triggers or other respiratory concernsthen do this basic assessment of your home’s air quality, and consider taking these steps to improve it (both from the American Lung Association)

As this stay-at-home time moves from a sprint to a marathon, we must consider these longer-term needs for our homes. Now and for future readiness, we must make sure we have sufficient shelter for when we shelter in place.