Determining Wind Loads in Relation to Building Design and Construction


This article was published in the January 21, 2013 weekly online edition of Property & Liability Resource Bureau’s Test Your Claims Knowledge.

Determining Wind Loads in Relation to Building Design and Construction

With so many different types of storms occurring in the United States every year, what is the appropriate amount of wind load to include in the design of buildings?

Structural load specifications are largely determined by:

  • data accumulated from prior events
  • statistical probability of occurrence
  • interpretation and recommendations by local governments/local jurisdictions

How Design Wind Load is Determined

Wind loads are calculated using two factors:

  • Basic Wind Speed
  • Exposure Category (specific to the location of the structure).

This criterion is based upon the recommendations in The American Society of Civil Engineers Standard 7 (ASCE 7).

Wind Speed

Basic wind speed data is calculated by evaluating the statistical analysis of the region’s climate over a period of 50 years. The highest wind occurrence in that period will then become the established design wind load, with an annual probability of the occurrence of “0.02″.

The basic wind speed for the majority of the United States is 90 miles per hour (mph). Coastal regions have much higher wind speeds due to high winds generated by hurricanes; design wind loads on the east coast range from 100 mph to 190 mph. There are also special wind regions to account for inland areas that have higher wind loads. For example, the Front Range of Colorado sits in a “special wind region” and the predetermined wind loads for building design can vary from 90 miles per hour (mph) to 180 mph.

Exposure Category

Exposure category is based upon ground surface roughness, which is determined from the topography, vegetation, and existing structures. ASCE 7 defines three exposure categories: B, C and D. Exposure B is defined as “urban and suburban areas, wooded areas, or other terrain with numerous, closely spaced obstructions having the size of single-family dwellings or larger”. Exposure C is defined as “open terrain with scattered obstructions having heights less than 30 feet. This category includes flat open country and grasslands”. Exposure D is defined as “flat, unobstructed areas and water surfaces. This category includes smooth mud flats, salt flats, and unbroken ice”.


Exposure B, structures are closely spaced and provide a surface roughness.
(Google Earth map of Old Town Arvada).


Exposure C, flat open areas with scattered obstructions (Google Earth map of west Arvada).


Exposure D, structures located near shorelines or open water. (Google Earth map of Cocoa Beach, Florida).

“Local jurisdictions, i.e. local building departments, will typically provide statutes for both wind speed and exposure categories for their county. However, some jurisdictions will provide only wind speed and require the building’s designer to assess the exposure category based on the specific location. Many counties will use one exposure category for the entire county, which may include both densely populated areas and open areas. For example, the first three Google Earth maps above are all from Jefferson County, Colorado, which specifies only one wind exposure. The difference in how severe weather impacts a structure that was built with Exposure B guidelines can result in upwards of 50 % more wind load damage compared to Exposure C, thus resulting in a probability of a critical outcome.” – Nicole Ellison, P.E. LEED AP

Prior to 1995 the Florida Building Code, which included the ASCE 7-98, ASCE 7-02 and the ASCE 7-05, included hurricane-prone region sites exposed to open water in Exposure Category C. This was based on the research available at that time. In response to newer research, these regions are now classified at Exposure D.“There are often multiple factors that can lead to a major structural failure including extreme wind or storm events, flaws in design or detailing, and construction defects. Deficiencies in the design and construction are often unnoticed until there is a structural failure. To avoid these shortcomings, designers must assess each site individually to determine the appropriate wind exposure and then design and detail the building components to withstand the expected wind forces. Contractors must be conscientious in supplying building materials that are load tested for high winds as specified by the designer. The construction materials must also be properly installed to withstand high wind loads.” – Nicole Ellison, P.E. LEED AP

Related news