Resilient Design

Hurricane Sandy made landfall on U.S. shores about five and a half months ago. Since, then, reams have been written about reconstruction and resilience. The discourse has, in many ways, mirrored the conversation about New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. The most extreme voices advocated abandoning the city altogether, given its vulnerability to future storms. Nobody is talking about deserting New York City, but the governors of both New Jersey and New York are using eminent domain and buyouts to pull private property back from fragile beach fronts. 

Sandy wasn't as powerful as Katrina, and resulted in far fewer fatalities, but since it hit a much denser population center, the low-to-mid-level catastrophe was more widespread. The New York metro area also has a lot of buried power lines, transformers, subways, tunnels, bridges, and other pressure points that can be crippled by flooding. With trains shut down and power out, the New York economy took a brutal hit as people couldn't get to work. However, all of the rebuilding activity served as a perverse salve, stimulating demand for construction and design services that have been depressed since the recession started in 2008.  

Via lineshapespace.

Now that some time has passed, and some perspective has been gained, the old arguments are calcifying into place: the economy-slaughtering ecos vs. the technocratic problem-solvers. The hippies want to reclaim wetlands, rebuild dunes, and replace damaged buildings with new, green construction. The engineers want to build seawalls, flood-proof subway tunnels, and put up disaster hotels. Neither side has a monopoly on solutions. Obviously, given population density and other factors, returning large swaths of Staten Island and Manhattan to nature is impossible. Building a giant, hydraulic-powered seawall is also well beyond anybody's budget right now, given that even a relatively small relief bill got tangled up in Congress.

That's a lot of ice caps.
Sparked by Sandy, Metropolis Magazine has been rolling out a really thoughtful series of articles on the emergent discipline of resilient architecture in an effort to change the conversation about disaster relief and reconstruction. We are stuck in a disaster cycle -- extreme weather event followed by hand-wringing followed by restoration of exactly what was there before

Power lines down? Put up new ones -- don't question out centralized electric grid with fragile wires on tall, wind-blown poles. Houses flooded? Build higher levees, put in a sump pump, and re-energize the endless debate about flood insurance. Beaches destroyed? Dredge up the ocean floor with a bunch of diesel-powered barges and put the beach back just the way we want it. 

From the I Am Legend video game.
The first Resilient Architectures article talked about key concepts: diversity, redundancy, network structures, and the distribution of structures across scales. These ideas apply to everything from our power grid to individual buildings. People have been thinking about a distributed grid for years -- replacing centralized, emissions-belching coal plants with a network of small, hyper-local generators that can manufacture heat and electricity, tied in with solar, wind, and geothermal options. At the scale of a single building, structural distribution, diversity, and redundancy kept recent Pritzker winner Toyo Ito's Sendai Mediatheque standing in a terrible earthquake

The second Resilient Architectures article took on the mid-century modernists and the silliness of LEED, attempting to slay two giants with one pen. The fundamental thesis is that modernism, and/or the reaction to modernism, has been the basic design paradigm for a century and it is inextricably tied to oil. It is, to borrow the author's phrasing, a petro-chemical architecture. Consequences of car-centered planning are obvious, but oil has soaked into all sorts of other areas of architecture and construction, from material science to our knee-jerk technological reaction to design problems. 

As these disasters become more and more prevalent -- droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards -- something is going to have to give. Economics will probably be the primary driver, as it often is. Those who can afford to build a bomb-proof beachfront house will do so. Others will be forced to move. City planners and politicians will reach for low-hanging fruit first -- moving folks out of floodplains, fixing some power lines, putting in pumps, flood-proofing transformers. Eventually, something will have to be done on a comprehensive scale, Netherlands-style. 

Until that political needle moves, we are left with individual action. But, honestly, riding my bike to work just doesn't seem like enough most of the time. So I'll try, on what scale I can, to incorporate redundancy, resiliency, and distribution into my work; vote smart; and hope for the best. 

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