As flooding increases across the country, architects and policymakers are strategizing ways to contain the deluge.
Flooding, long dismissed as a problem that happens to someone else, has risen in our national consciousness over the past 15 years thanks to such names as Katrina, Rita, Sandy, and Harveyâa set of the worst houseguests you could ever imagine. Recent flooding has been driven by a variety of causes: hurricanes whose landfall wasnât in perennially threatened areas, as well as intense rains and snowmeltâmanifestations of climate change and malign coincidence.
One linked fact is that flooding has afflicted far more than the usual geographic suspects, with New England and the Gulf Coast experiencing intense onslaughts. The impact has been highly destructive, and the only silver lining might be a greater awareness among architects and expertsâand the publicâof the need to take action.
Resilience, which until recently was represented by academics or the occasional forward-minded planner, is in the process of vaulting into mainstream consciousness as a result.
Illya Azaroff, AIA, founding principal at +LAB Architect PLLCs and a professor at New York City College of Technology (City University of New York), notes, âBefore Hurricane Sandy, every time there was a resilience meeting, we all knew each other. Since then, Iâm in meetings all of the time, and I donât know a majority of the people. Thatâs a great thing.â (Azaroff âs #HurricaneStrong home in Breezy Point, Queens, is the subject of the 2019 AIA Film Challenge seed film.)
Among architects and policymakers, a more acute awareness of the risks of flooding is developingânot only because of its increased geographic dispersal, but also because flooding has started to serially outstrip the bounds of outdated flood maps in surges of Neptunian irredentism. While this is an obvious shock to anyone whose home or business has been deluged, it is often chased by a second one: the fact that no one will pay for the damages.
FEMA flood maps, which classify sites into different levels of risks, have been irregularly funded, and many homes and businesses within their current boundaries lack insurance anyway. Prospective changes to FEMA flood insurance policies could prompt considerable changes in the nature of future construction and repairs in vulnerable areas. Assessments to date have been based on comparatively broad classifications of risk; FEMAâs Risk Rating 2.0 update, set to be implemented in 2020, will apply a finer-grained set of evaluations to individual properties, including the elevation of ground on the property, the elevation of a structureâs first-floor distance to water, and potential rebuilding costs.
âIf property ownership costs are going to dramatically increase, that will have an affect on architects and the kinds of buildings they design,â says Rachel Minnery, FAIA, the senior director of resilience, adaptation, and disaster assistance at AIA. âDesign is not the leader here, economic loss is.â
When it comes to the work of influencing and guiding where to build, how to build, how to protect whatâs built, and how to reduce overall flood risks, architects have a vital role to play.
David Waggonner, FAIA, a principal at Waggonner & Ball who has been active with New Orleans flood planning, notes that architects are often merely responding to client specifications and may not have ultimately persuasive capacities, but that it is becoming necessary to take a stronger stance. âArchitects are needed,â he says. âIf we stay out of this, God help us.â
Storm-Related Ocean Flooding in Boston
There is no single way to foil flooding, and understanding the geographic variables is key. Some parts of New England, unexpectedly ravaged during Hurricane Sandy, feature safe land close to where any building is sitedâeven next to the ocean.
âThe geologic structure of Connecticut is like the fingers of your hand; some of the geological ridges stretch out into the sea. You donât have to retreat out of the area; you just have to retreat upland to the ridges,â says Donald Watson, FAIA, principal at EarthRise Design in Trumbull, Conn. This means that flood-vulnerable neighborhoods can migrate to higher ground nearby, possibly within the same town.
âGreenwich has done this [by allowing] developers to increase densities in safe zones and decrease densities in unsafe zones,â he says. New housing is permitted in the flood plain if