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A new world order

Disasters do not respect geographic boundaries; the challenge of designing secure spaces is global. In these pages, ArchitectureBoston surveys five approaches to mitigate or respond to disaster, whether natural or man-made.


The Earth shakes, the people rise

by Hubert Murray FAIA

The Hunnarshala hostel building, built under the guidance of the Hunnarshala Foundation in Bhuj, India. Photo: Courtesy Hunnarshala Foundation

On January 26, 2001, an earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter Scale struck Bhuj in western Gujarat state in India, killing 13,805, injuring 166,836, destroying 339,000 buildings, and rendering up to a million homeless. Devastation was recorded almost 200 miles from the epicenter, even to modern construction in Ahmedabad, the state capital. More than $200 million of international aid poured in, and the government of Gujarat pledged $1 billion in reconstruction grants supplemented by loans from development banks.

Ten years later, the BBC “found the place transformed from a pile of rubble in a neglected backwater into an economic powerhouse.” Examples of this success include an airport at Bhuj, a seaport at Mundra, and factories in Anjar, much of the private investment attracted by tax relief and suspension of excise duties. On a more recent visit, however, I found a social investment in community organizing and skills training, leading to successes arguably more profound than those injections of external capital.

A visitor to the region may stay in the Shaam-e-Sarhad Village Resort in Hodka, an ecotourism hotel built, owned, and operated since 2005 by 13 of the surrounding villages affected by the earthquake. The hotel is designed as a series of individual round houses, or bhungas, clustered around common services, using traditional construction and decorative techniques. It is an astonishingly beautiful place with a level of food and service one would expect from any first-class hotel. Where does such excellence come from, especially in the aftermath of a disastrous earthquake, and in such a remote area?

The answer lies in a network of community organizations, some originating before the earthquake, others later. The organizational midwife of the project, helping the 13 villages establish their goals and guiding the setting up of management and operations, was the Kutch Mahila Vikas Sanghatan Collective. Comprising more than 12,000 women, it was founded in 1989 with the express intention of empowering members with skills development and overcoming divisions of religion and caste. The Hunnarshala Foundation, set up after the earthquake to help with reconstruction based on artisanal knowledge, complements this organizational capability. The foundation combines traditional techniques such as rammed earth construction and roof thatching with the benefit of engineering analysis to address seismic vulnerabilities and accommodate larger spans. Hunnarshala and the women’s collective share the conviction that design and building can and should be managed by “the people themselves.”

Hunnarshala has also provided trainers and enablers to local communities in other areas. After the earthquake and tsunami that hit Indonesia’s Banda Aceh in 2004, village women from Kutch, part of the Hunnarshala team, provided training in thatching techniques; they have now formed their own nonprofit company, the Mathachhaj partnership. Hunnarshala’s own technical training center in Bhuj, started in 2011, makes a point of including trainees of diverse backgrounds. Close by is the Khamir Crafts Resource Center, a training center for the propagation and development of traditional crafts, where the instructors are artisans from the surrounding communities and the trainees are eager to learn and set up in business.

What these projects and organizations exemplify is the enduring strength of indigenous skills that, with an approach enabling local organizing and decision making, can form the basis for social, economic, and physical reconstruction of communities after a disaster. ■

Puerto Rico

Powering the recovery grid

by Pedro Sifre

Rebecca and Roberto Atienza, third-generation coffee farmers in Puerto Rico, return from surveying Hurricane Maria’s damage to their farm. Photo: Nick Michael/npr

It’s been more than a year since Hurricanes Irma and Maria ripped through Puerto Rico, cutting deep into the body and soul of the island. The daunting tale of damage and recovery can be told through various industries, from tourism to chicken processing to agriculture. Maria wiped out the 2017 coffee harvest — already staggered by blows from earlier storm cycles — and most of the trees. A new tree takes three years to produce fruit; growers would have to plant 6 million every year for the next three years just to regain their 2017 production levels. Few family-owned farms have the wherewithal to endure three years of rebuilding, let alone to survive another year like 2017.

Impacts on nature were equally profound. Estimates of bees killed by the storm run up to 90 percent, with the corresponding effects on fruit crops that depend on bees for pollination. Destruction of forests in the eastern end of the island exposed the forest floor to erosion, heat, and ultraviolet light. Consequently, a species of tree frog that sings at night and was adapted to this region is functionally extinct — a silent spring of sorts.

The 2017 hurricanes laid bare the risks posed by decades of informal construction. Tens of thousands of homes on steep slopes and in flood zones were destroyed. Thousands more were a total loss from wind uplift on corrugated steel and wood roofs and from smashed unreinforced masonry walls.

Less evident than the spectacular devastation of dwellings and systems was the grinding loss from seemingly minor damage on otherwise intact structures that overwhelmed residents and businesses for months. The local climate requires dehumidification for operating hotels, healthcare facilities, food service, and any dwelling that lacks ample ventilation. Leaks from wind-driven rain, loss of air conditioning from lack of power, and tropical heat for an extended period of time produced rampant mold growth. Similarly, leakage into electrical rooms, elevator machine rooms, and the like ruined systems in thousands of buildings.

Despite the bad news, the response to the disaster offers glimmers of hope. After Maria, citizen networks mobilized to complement the clipboard-and-form bureaucracy. Maria entered the island on its southeast coast, precisely the operating region of a nonprofit organization called Programa de Educación Comunal de Entrega y Servicio Inc., or PECES, founded in 1985 by a former Catholic nun. Its mission, to foster the economic and social development of disadvantaged communities, has now expanded to the fit-out of hardened shelters, starting from existing abandoned structures that survived the hurricane.

There is renewed interest in the cooperative movement, which has a long history on the island. After notable successes in recent years taking over private factories slated to close upon the expiration of tax incentives, business cooperatives mobilized their membership to repair damage to properties and surrounding communities. Design professionals from the Boston area have united to collaborate with local professionals, institutions, and citizen groups to apply design and resiliency ideas to recovery projects and planning efforts. The eventual deployment of local, decentralized electrical micro-grids is now all but certain. Micro-grids operate autonomously and can keep the lights on when the central power grid fails. Lessons learned from these installations will eventually benefit millions around the world.

One has to hope that the resourcefulness, focus, and energy of so many agents bolsters the island’s resiliency. While we are focusing on storms, let’s not overlook the fact that the Puerto Rico Trench and nearby fault lines have the potential to generate earthquakes in excess of a Richter magnitude of 8.0. The last big one, tsunami and all, occurred during hurricane season, on October 11, 1918. ■

United States

The hunt for higher ground

by Jason Hellendrung ASLA

All that remains of the road to the Isle de Jean Charles. Photo: Ben Depp

Cities in coastal environments around the world, among the most vulnerable to sea-level rise from a changing climate, have experienced unprecedented growth since 1950. Several are thoughtfully considering how to adapt to a wet future. In Boston, we are looking at elevating roads, seawalls, or entire buildings; constructing new locks and flood gates; or building new ecological barriers, such as tidal marshes, to absorb higher water levels and storm surges.

Still, we must ask, “Is it enough?” Some geophysicists, evaluating ice melt of glaciers, suggest we may be looking at 10 feet of sea-level rise by the end of the century. At that rate, we’re no longer tinkering with road elevations: We need to be asking whether some coastal environments are suitable for habitation.

Several regions are now starting to consider “managed retreat” from the coast. One of the most highly publicized initiatives is in Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana, 80 miles southwest of New Orleans. This vulnerable community of about 100 residents sits outside the federally approved align-ment for risk reduction along coastal Louisiana. Moreover, the area has seen nearly 98 percent of the marshes and wetlands around the peninsula wash away in recent decades, leaving a single road providing the only access.

In 2016, Isle de Jean Charles was awarded $48 million from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to create a model for voluntary relocation of the entire community. The federal award has a special poignancy because much of the community represent multiple tribal nations that were pushed to this land during earlier westward expansion of the United States. Although still in the planning stages, the goal is to relocate the entire town approximately 40 miles north, creating a new, mixed-use community that will generate revenue and jobs to become self-sustaining.

Mathew Sanders, the project manager for the Louisiana Office of Community Development, describes the residents as “climate pioneers” and the effort as a test to “preserve a community’s cultural identity while creating an economic model that can become a transferable model to other communities for coastal retreat.” But the effort has required a significant investment in relationship building with the community following the distrust built up over centuries.

A second example is on Long Island in New York. Still rebuilding from Superstorm Sandy, the state of New York has initiated a study to explore a transfer of development rights program for Long Island. This would allow communities along the coast designated as “Extreme Risk Zones” to sell development rights into a “development rights bank,” which could then be resold to developments in higher, drier locations in the center of Long Island, ideally around historic downtowns and rail stations.

The program is still evaluating potential impacts and hurdles. One is legality: Currently, development rights can’t be transferred across municipalities. Other considerations include lost property tax revenue and the effect of those reductions on roads, utilities, schools, and emergency response and fire districts. Residents have mixed emotions about the proposal, but with more than 50,000 properties on Long Island in the Extreme Risk Zone, the program offers a marketdriven strategy to help strengthen communities while limiting exposure to future sea-level rise and storms.

Isle de Jean Charles and Long Island present a vision for the future that coastal communities are going to need to address. Both programs offer a contrast to more traditional property acquisitions, individual buyouts, or buyback schemes initiated by federal agencies following disasters in recent decades. Both present an opportunity for growing communities and supporting economic development. They offer an alternative for communities that may not have the density, population, or property values to justify a major investment in infrastructure to protect the community. They represent a tool we’ll need to sharpen as we face the reality that some areas are no longer suitable for habitation. ■


Connecting the social dots

by Daniel P. Aldrich

A box of photographs left in the wake of the tsunami in Minamisanriku, northeastern Japan. Photo: David Guttenfelder/Associated Press

The community of Taro in Iwate Prefecture in Japan’s northern region of Tohoku is no stranger to tsunamis. After facing two massive waves over the last 120 years, survivors demanded that the local government do something, so eventually it did: The city built massive seawalls that would keep the residents safe.

Residents told me that when the seawalls were completed (and the town nearly bankrupt) in 1958, a new spate of construction began immediately. But physical infrastructure created new norms and altered risk behaviors that set them up for calamity.

On March 11, 2011, a massive 9.0 earthquake struck off Tohoku’s coast. Residences and commercial buildings, by and large, suffered little damage. But that earthquake set off a tsunami as high as 65 feet, which surged toward the coast about 40 minutes after the tremors stopped. The government issued tsunami warnings and evacuation orders, but not everyone left vulnerable, low-lying areas along the coast.

Many residents in Taro believed that the wall would save them. They didn’t evacuate to higher ground. Others climbed to and stood on top of the seawall to see what risks they faced. Much of the wall crumbled and was swept away, and 144 people from the community — about 6 percent — died. Across the Tohoku region some 18,400 people died, almost all of them in the black waves.

Since my own home was destroyed by flooding after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, I have learned that what keeps people safe during disaster and accelerates their recovery afterwards is actually social, not physical, infrastructure. In communities in Japan, strong social connections motivated young people to carry the elderly and infirm to safety ahead of the tsunami. In the 40 minutes between the earthquake and the arrival of the waves, healthy and younger residents could easily walk the mile or less uphill to higher ground. But those in bed or facing disabilities needed help to get to safety. In an academic study of more than 140 communities along the coast, my Japanese colleague and I found that those with more social infrastructure had lower levels of mortality than similar ones that had division and a lack of trust.

Social ties matter after a crisis. In the recovery process, individuals with more connections to neighbors better handled the immense stress of evacuation. Some who fled homes near the Fukushima nuclear power plants had to move six times over the course of a year.

My Japanese colleagues and I interviewed members of the city of Futaba, which had to evacuate in March 2011 as the plants melted down. Through conversations and surveys with more than 500 people, we learned that having neighbors whom they knew reduced their stress and post-trauma symptoms.

Finally, our study of more than 40 tsunami-affected cities and towns found those communities with more vertical ties to decision makers and politicians rebuilt infrastructure, homes, and schools more effectively. Towns and villages in Tohoku that had only a single powerful advocate in the central government — think of former Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy or former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — did measurably worse than those with four or more such power brokers.

While decision makers may move quickly to construct large-scale physical infrastructure, as has been proposed here in Boston to handle rising seas, they should instead look to the power of social infrastructure. ■


In the realm of the unknown

by Ann Beha FAIA

The eastern corner of the US Embassy in Athens, photographed at dusk in 2016. Photo: Yiorgis Yerolymbos

Design that anticipates; design that responds; design that protects and resists yet welcomes — design that feels protected — is this designing for “safe”?

Making buildings resistant and performative is a core obligation, largely technical. But making occupants feel safe adds the emotional, the unforeseen, the experiential, and even the political to that mix. What could happen? What settings convey security while still assuring comfort and community? Much tougher. Technical design incorporates codes and criteria, but the perception of safety is evaluative, subjective, and often intangible. Design is looking to prove a negative: “Nothing went wrong.”

As our firm designs for “safe,” we draw on five years of work for US State Department facilities abroad, upgrading them to be more secure, effective, and also welcoming; after all, these are our diplomatic buildings. In Athens, the upgrade and expansion of the Gropius chancery and embassy compound, which we were awarded in 2014, emphasizes security, safety, and resilience. Careful oversight of all aspects of the design is embedded throughout the process. Outside experts advise and review so that all aspects of the structure and systems will perform at their highest potential for resistance. Many existing conditions require meaningful change.

Walter Gropius envisioned his design set on an open, sweeping lawn, with a large open courtyard in the center of the chancery. These conditions have practical and security shortcomings and must be reconsidered. As we look forward to more work for the State Department, on more embassies and buildings abroad, we can imagine similar issues will remain a top priority. But even the most sophisticated of teams can only future plan, not future proof, for the unknown.

Well beyond government buildings, security concerns and design obligations have widened. Civic and institutional owners require that facilities address internal and external threat and worry about the past and the inconceivable. This framework of concerns has unsteadied design assumptions. We take for granted that we will provide a building both stable and resistant, mindful of intrusion or impact. Less certain is that occupants, relying on building performance, employee training, and protective systems, can find in their daily settings the calm and support to deal with unforeseen events or fears, perceived or actual.

So, we make fences that try to be good neighbors but set us apart. For Athens, fencing is open to the street, and the embassy visible and majestic. Landscape is seen and used safely, with buffers. New windows shield, and space plans provide strategic sightlines. Corridors are wider, interior views more open, hardware more secure, systems redundant. There are more places to gather and collaborate and a sense, through this, of the workplace as community.

Throughout the design process, experts have considered the “what ifs,” which could be answered with fewer entries, more interior observation points, smaller and less visible openings, protective glass, and an aesthetic that conveys resistance, even discouragement. Design a deterrent, while still a common ground: These goals become a tension-ridden mandate.

Design can’t predict. The future of conflict and adversity is not known. Our current times have sensitized designers to ask probing questions and design to a new level of awareness and performance. We help buildings resist and stabilize. We help occupants prepare, exit, shelter in place, and monitor their surroundings. But the real “safe” belongs to policies and politics. Removing threat, returning buildings to common ground and community, is the ultimate goal. A healthier, more reconciled world is our best and only true defense. It goes way, way beyond architecture. ■