Planning & Building for Severe Weather

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, developers, designers and cities themselves need to ensure their current and future buildings can withstand extreme weather events, notes WXY architecture + design Co-Founder Claire Weisz.
Claire Weisz, (image by Sioux Nesi)
Claire Weisz, (Image by Sioux Nesi)

The two recent hurricanes that hit the U.S. set records, with Hurricane Harvey taking the title of the most extreme rain even in the country’s history and Hurricane Irma becoming the most powerful Atlantic Ocean storm in history. With weather events likely to get more extreme, real estate developers and cities themselves need to make resiliency a top priority when building or updating their infrastructure. Claire Weisz, co-founder of WXY architecture + design, spoke with CPE about how developers and city officials can plan for future weather events and other natural disasters.

CPE: What strategies are developers, designers and cities themselves implementing to prepare for natural disasters and severe weather when planning their buildings?

Claire Weisz: One important trend is that owners and developers are going to alternative energy to ensure continuity of operations and to attract more tenants and buyers. Among the most promising energy types are co-generation and solar power, and the two can be effectively combined for use in lieu of diesel generators, which are less appealing. Another basic strategy is to make the site and buildings more resilient, for example by raising all utilities above the ground and to higher floors. We’re also seeing more use of flood gates on all parking garages below grade, to protect vehicles and people.

CPE: How can owners work to improve their current building portfolio’s resistance to these weather events? 

Weisz: The techniques mentioned above are helpful, and perhaps the most powerful way to prepare for and resist the effects of severe weather relate to building stronger community awareness and strengthening links with others in their neighborhoods. These steps are valuable because they raise awareness among tenants, neighbors and building owners, as well as with local officials. It’s a way to educate all the people who might be affected by a weather event, and to create contingency plans for the entire community.

CPE: What are the implications of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma in terms of building planning and design within the affected cities and outside of the cities?

Weisz: A major implication is the importance of updating, supporting and enforcing building codes and zoning rules. The fact is that these steps work, and we can’t roll this back. Better codes and zoning help limit losses, reduce rebuilding costs and lead to more resilient communities overall. A few of the recent projects underway show the new codes in action, including our work in New York City and others in New Orleans. We’ve just been selected as part of a team with the landscape architectue firm Bionic for San Francisco’s Resiliency By Design / Bay Area program, and we expect this will be an important aspect there, too.

CPE: What are some ways you think these cities will work to recover from the events and improve their resiliency to severe weather in the future?

Weisz: By working with scientists, developers and designers of buildings can better address new, flexible ways of living and working affordably. More architects and urban designers are drawing on great new ideas in the sciences to make buildings more adaptable and cost-effective.

CPE: What lessons can developers and designers in other cities learn from these recent events?

Weisz: Our biggest lesson is that we all need to do what we can to be more energy efficient, to conserve water and resources, and to use the maximum recycled content. We can’t afford to be wasteful, because extreme weather is made worse by sea level rise, and we need to reduce the energy and resource use that exacerbate the environmental challenges contributing to rising seas. In this way, there’s more to it than just building to resist more extreme weather.

CPE: Any other advice for developers and designers when it comes to resilient building design?

Reach out and make connections across your communities. Every development should contribute to the civic commons and improve on codes and standards in order to ensure a better future for the next generation. We’re responsible for this and we’ll create better buildings if we design for not only those in the buildings but those outside, too.