Designing For Disaster

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Each passing day reveals the monster storm Sandy to be one of the costliest natural disasters in the country’s history. More than 70 people dead. Billions in cleanup and repairs. Millions without power; thousands without homes. An economy and a critical election jeopardized.

But as with most natural disasters – floods, blackouts, wildfires, earthquakes, landslides – Sandy’s devastation is at least partly manmade. When land collapses because it is stripped of its forests and topsoil, when thousands die in earthquakes because of shoddy construction, when disease spreads because of a lack of clean drinking water, when power grids fail because utilities disinvest in basic maintenance – and when political leaders grandstand by refusing federal infrastructure funds – these are not acts of God.

Mankind has created conditions that exacerbate natural disasters, and mankind’s ingenuity can help mitigate their effects. Architects, engineers, and urban planners are often ahead of the curve in designing for disaster: building cheap and efficient temporary shelter, to be sure, but also using materials and construction techniques that adapt to threatening climactic conditions.

In lower Manhattan, so devastated by encroaching seawater during Sandy, architects and planners have long proposed building barrier islands or new marshland to soften and absorb the blow of storm surges. A special exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010 enlisted engineers, landscape designers and architects to examine ways the city could adjust to rising sea levels. They proposed replacing tar streets with water-permeable paving, building artificial reefs, and moving critical subway infrastructure above ground. More common ideas to absorb the shock of climate change, or slow its march, include green roofs, erosion control, and net-zero emission buildings. Architects play a major role because buildings account for half the nation’s energy consumption.

Mankind has created conditions that exacerbate natural disasters, and mankind’s ingenuity can help mitigate their effects.

And it isn’t just New York: climate change has profound implications in Boston, a city built on landfill. As early as 1988, Boston architect Antonio DiMambro proposed linking the Harbor Islands into a protective tidal-surge barrier from Winthrop to Quincy. That never got off the drawing board, but some creative thinking did: The new Spaulding Hospital in Charlestown was designed by Partners Healthcare to accommodate a potential sea-level rise of 24 inches: all of its computer and electrical equipment was moved off the ground floor, and the whole building was built a foot above sea level.


Student architects are showing an increasing interest in socially responsible building – what is sometimes called “design in the public interest.” Last year the Harvard Graduate School of Design launched a new area of study: “Risk and Resilience.” The courses address “the inevitability of unpredictable shocks to the built and natural environment.”

The students had better study fast, because the country has a lot of catching up to do. Sandy only brought into high relief the reality of deferred maintenance in our tunnels, subways, sea walls, and electric grid.

On Tuesday, an angry Worcester city manager complained that his local utilities were not up to the challenges of climate change. “Let’s start talking about a 21st-century electrical grid that is … able to withstand 21st-century weather conditions,” he told WBUR.

Regardless of who is responsible, climate change will surely be delivering more frequent and more powerful storms. It’s past time to start planning.

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This program aired on November 2, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.