Resilient Building in the Post-Sandy Era

Architect and design activist Rachel Minnery talks to Dwell about Hurricane Sandy reconstruction and preparing for climate change.

As a longtime architectural advocate focused on recovery and resiliency, it’s only fitting Rachel Minnery has been manning the front lines. As the founding and former regional program manager for Architecture for Humanity’s Hurricane Sandy Reconstruction program and an organizer behind the Sandy Design Help Desk, a much-needed source of architectural guidance for those rebuilding, she’s seen and heard firsthand how people struggle to rebuild and retrofit their homes in the wake of flooding and natural disaster. From Red Hook to the Jersey Shore and beyond, she’s discovered situations that mirror her previous experience dealing with relief in Haiti, the Gulf Coast, and Seattle.

“I had a conversation this morning about whether or not this idea of resilience is going to be a fleeting trend,” she says. “Pretty quickly, everyone will directly or indirectly feel the affects of climate change.”

With a projected $700 billion in coastal property at risk of being affected by rising sea levels in coming decades, Minnery passionately believes risk and resiliency will play an even bigger role in design going forward. Dwell spoke to Minnery before her panel discussion at the American Institute of Architects convention in Chicago last week about the best ways to adapt our homes and our perceptions of responsible construction.

When you arrived in NYC post Sandy, was there a better federal response than what you saw after, say, Katrina? Is the government learning its lessons, and how can it still get better?

I think it’s becoming more and more pronounced that you have federal, state, regional, and local, and it’s important to define them, because those different entities have very different stakes in the matter. For instance, FEMA creates flood insurance rate maps. The last ones were created for the NY region in 1983. So how helpful is it to you as a citizen, as a property owner and a developer, to have your data based on 1983 information? There’s a lot riding on those basic federal policies. FEMA doesn’t typically add climate change or sea level rise into those projections. Public demand for information will help change the agency's priorities.

Without that information, are we encouraging unsafe development?

Sandy Design Help desk is a great example of architects being able to provide that information. Here’s the crux of the problem —you own a house in the Rockaways. The Barrier Islands are projected to be under water by the end of the century. You have a choice, do you spend the extra money to retrofit, or do you move? If you’re going to retrofit your house, then you don’t have funding support to retrofit unless it’s over 50% damaged. They’re not typically mandated by policy to do it. Since the codes don’t say require a retrofit, the banks aren’t loaning for it.

At the Sandy Help Desk, you have architects who are helping people rebuild. Do you feel like at any point you should tell people not to rebuild?

I feel our job is to convey all the information that’s available, and tie it into the big picture and how it fits into the community and aging infrastructure problems and climate change. If you decide to stay and rebuild or retrofit, a thoughtful architect can help by telling you all the options. We have to think bigger picture than we’ve ever had before.

How did the Sandy Help Desk come about?

Architecture for Humanity, which has more experience than most design-based organizations leading this kind of response, organized it as a public/non-profit program with the City of New York and other partners. The city had one of the most thoughtful approaches to recovery I’ve ever seen, and part of an initiative called SIRR (Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency) called for the creation of a design studio, like the help desk, to inform homeowners and property owners about their options, connect them to available programs and services, and help them with feasibility studies and permit questions.

The Sandy Design Help Desks in Red Hook and the Rockaways were real win-wins for property owners, the city, and the design community. We need to prepare for these issues and we need to educate our architects on how to work with clients on these issues. Frankly, everyone is learning by doing in this situation, and they’re getting this great, rich volunteer experience working with the 90% of the population who can’t afford an architect but really need it in this particular situation. Architects rarely get to engage with the public, so I get really exited about that, because we all know more about each other and become more sensitive about the social issues we’re trying to tackle.

How do we build more resiliently in Sandy-affected areas in the future?

Given that New York City, the densest city in the U.S., would have a different answer than the suburbs of New Jersey, I still think there’s a methodology that sticks no matter what. The whole notion of resiliency is kicking sustainability into high gear, maximizing and optimizing, conserving energy, being high tech. A lot of those approaches, to be really frank about it, are helping, but also can just make bad buildings less bad. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a resilient building by itself—they can’t survive on their own without community connections. We have to think bigger. We’re in an interesting time. We’re paying the piper for decisions made long ago that are no longer serving us. Our utilities, infrastructure, and mass transportation lines are all set in place. Do we keep rebuilding the way that we’ve been doing, or re-imagine what the best way to redevelop in this area may look like?

What are some of the more surprising lessons you learned?

I was surprised about how many people wanted to go above and beyond with repairs and rebuilding. People really wanted to invest in making sure this didn’t happen again, demonstrating a greater appetite for mitigating risk. If our government leadership were to become aware of it, that would motivate them to create more policies that would allow citizens to do that work.

What policy change would benefit people of this area the most?

We need to make the information of risk readily available and understandable. I sometimes have a hard time digesting all the information. Right now, 85% of the building stock that will be around 20 years from now already exists. Architecture, I suspect, will begin to change a lot from a focus on new buildings to renovations, retrofits, and relocations. 

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