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Designed for action

With climate change, the recent earthquake in Haiti, the Rhode Island floods and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) undertaking the remapping of flood zones, preparing for disasters is on everyone’s mind lately. The BSA spoke with Erica Rioux Gees AIA—one of Massachusetts’ two state coordinators for disaster design, organizer of Build Boston’s The Role of Designers in Disasters symposium and the new managing director of AIA Legacy—about proactive design.

How did you get into the field of designing for disasters?

It’s genetic with me, having grown up with a father who always thought it was important to be prepared. I heard about AIA’s disaster-assistance program and I got involved with it, got the training and I’ve been doing it ever since. In 2007, AIA decided to really push the program and have state coordinators. I enlisted as a state coordinator and received some training in California, the “Train the Trainer” certification program, so I could be training architects and engineers here in New England.

Once you start to look at how things fail, you really start to learn how to do things better. In structures class, one of the first things they tell you is: No one really knows what it’s like to be a piece of steel. With all the failures, we start to understand what the limitations are of the materials. It’s about learning from failures and disasters, be they catastrophic or not, what the limits of what we’re doing are. I was always fascinated by that. It’s the same thing with building codes. Building codes—most of the codes we have are literally written in blood. There’s been an accident or something has happened and we realize we need to do things differently.

As design professionals, we need to be more connected to our communities and step up to the plate.

The disaster-assistance volunteer program is a wonderful way to get that outreach, to be there when there’s something catastrophic and they need people. Why not have an architect come in and give them an assessment?

It sounds like the proactive approach, this disaster-relief design mindset, is really the ultimate in sustainable design.

Exactly. We know buildings are going to last 100 years, they’re going to be around 100 years—well, why not design them and build them to last that long, instead of what we do now, which is based on the 25-year mortgage. If you look at the way the tax structure is, it’s not designed for sustainability because you’re expected to replace things quickly. We should change that thinking.

That reminds me of Antonio DiMambro FAIA’s plan for flood barriers in Boston should we get hit by climate-change consequences. How can the Boston building community prepare buildings for those kinds of varied, somewhat unpredictable consequences?

There are some cultures that have designed for the changes in sea levels. Either they are literally raised on stilts or there are portions of the buildings that are expendable and the other portions are structurally very, very sound. Water comes in, and you’re going to have to replace finishes and surfaces, and everything else can withstand what comes its way. You design to work with the water, basically.

Most of the development right now and into the future is coastal properties. It’s coastal zones and coastal communities; that’s where you’re seeing the most. We’re really setting ourselves up for a very interesting experiment.

Is it too late to start training the designers to build for disasters?

I don’t think it’s ever too late. We have to get the message home that this is real and this is going to happen. Since Hurricane Katrina, FEMA has changed all the regulations and redone all its maps for flood demarcation zones. The majority of coastal development structures have to be built above the high-water flood-level zone. It’s interesting that the federal government is taking a stand on this. They can’t afford these disasters anymore. It’s forcing our arm. We need to be more proactive as designers; we need to engineer and design some elegant solutions that take into account we’re going to have these disasters happen.

Look at the Rhode Island floods this past year. Three-fourths of that state can be under-water at any time, and that was proved this spring when they had the floods. They can really have a catastrophic situation very quickly. We can have the same thing happen here in Massachusetts.

What’s your advice to design professors?

Talk about disasters. Bring it up. Give some design problems to students saying, OK, here you are. You know you’re going to have a flood; these are going to be the properties of the flood. Our students are creative and energetic; they are embracing sustainability and looking forward to the future. They know things are going to be very different by the time they’re old. You have some huge opportunities—especially in the Boston area with all the schools there—to put the challenge out to students and professors and design competitions. Get people thinking about this.

Tell me more about the disaster-assistance program.

Every state pretty much has a coordinator, and some state programs are more established than others. Kansas and California have the most wonderful state programs. We have Jim Barnes coming to The Role of Designers in Disasters symposium; he organizes all the training in California for everybody—architects, engineers—and he’s coming to do our training in Boston during Build Boston. By involving design professionals, California has been able to rapidly change the building codes to prevent damage from fire. They’ve gone from 70 to 90 percent damage to only 2 percent damage, which is amazing. Just in changing setbacks from vegetation, types of vegetation, a couple different things that designers realized were making a difference. They’d go into an area [after a fire] and see a couple different houses standing and think, that’s interesting. They’d start to break that apart and see what was making a difference in damage from fires. It’s completely changed the codes, and that was just in a few years that they were able to do that. They have been very aggressive.

I’d say California is the capital of disasters because they get them all. We can get the same ones in Massachusetts, though. Fire? We’ve had fires. Earthquakes? We’ve had them; we just don’t have them as frequently, but we’ve had the same strength earthquakes. Since they aren’t as frequent, people don’t really think about it.

The Role of Designers in Disasters symposium is a great opportunity for us, to have our members trained here. It’s good knowledge to know. Hopefully they are never called to respond.

Top image: Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital on Charlestown's waterfront is resilient in the face of many potential disasters. Designed by Perkins+Will.