Architects Leading Charge for Disaster Preparedness

Worst-case flood projection for Lower Manhattan. (Via WNYC)

Worst-case flood projection for Lower Manhattan. (Via WNYC)

After going through 9/11,  the importance of disaster preparedness and relief hit home with New Yorkers. “Everyone was focusing on the fact that New York had been damaged,” said Lance Jay Brown, AIANY board member and co-chair of the recently formed Design for Risk and Reconstruction committee of the AIANY. “The architectural community was galvanized to respond.” Just coming off a jolt from a rare, if small, earthquake and with Hurricane Irene on its doorstep, New York is once again focused on planning for disaster.

In 2004, Brown convened an ad hoc committee comprised of members of the design and planning community including the AIA, APA, and ALSA to form the Disaster Preparedness Task Force. With global disasters from Katrina to quakes in Haiti and Chile making news more and more frequently, the group sought to organize architects as first responders to help not only with the aftermath of a disaster but also to prepare for future events. “We thought it would be reasonable for the architectural community to look at these problems to figure out what we could do before, during, and after,” Brown explained.

This year, the AIANY further sought to establish a permanent standing committee to explore the array of issues surrounding disasters and design. In May, a committee was formed and by June, after some debate over the name, was christened Design for Risk and Reconstruction.

The group had its first meeting this Wednesday attended by about 20 people, coincidentally timed between an earthquake and a hurricane. Brown said the group couldn’t anticipate these events when the meeting was scheduled months ago, but noted, “When there’s a crisis, everyone jumps up and gets interested but then quickly forgets.” The momentum of current events could be a boon toward realizing goals of better design for disasters. “The goal of the committee is to foster an attitude of good design to anticipate risk and find opportunities to improve design,” he said.

Among the ideas of the committee are to host a series of events ranging from rebuilding tornado-ravaged Greenburg, Kansas to applying lessons from 9/11 toward rebuilding Haiti. The group’s first event will feature Klaus Jacob of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University who has researched disaster preparedness in New York. He and his colleagues recently published “Vulnerability of the New York City Metropolitan Area to Coastal Hazards, Including Sea-Level Rise: Inferences for Urban Coastal Risk Management and Adaptation Policies.” No date has been set for the event.

Brown compared the group’s efforts to the advent of fire egress regulations over the past 150 years. After a devastating fire in the 1830s that destroyed Manhattan’s Wall Street district, a series of design improvements were made to ensure better safety in buildings. Fire escapes first appeared to offer a second means of egress and then dual utilitarian fireproof stairs. Today, architects are celebrating fire stair design in the city’s newest buildings. “We have gone from a time of no egress to egress as a design attribute 150 years later,” Brown said. Designing for other disasters could have the same effect.

As Irene moves closer to New York and bottles of water begin disappearing off bodega shelves, Brown said the best approach is to hunker down and ride out the storm in safety. “We don’t tend to have buildings that blow away,” he noted. “What seems most dangerous is damage caused by flying objects.” A few of his recommendations: move indoors all objects that can catch the wind, from awnings to deck chairs, or securely tie them down; residents of tall buildings should move to a lower level—below the tenth floor—to ride out the storm, due to increased winds at higher elevations and greater building sway.

While scaffolding might seem particularly vulnerable, after the city shuts down all construction sites across the city on Saturday at 2:00 p.m., the scaffolds should remain strong. “If things have been done to code and correctly anchored to buildings, there’s little to fear,” Brown said. Scaffolding could actually increase safety, providing shelter for those trapped outside during the storm.

“The city is getting better at being prepared,” Brown noted. “It’s a good time to remind people to get informed.”

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