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Building Museum Shows How Communities Can Cut Losses From Natural Disasters

By Elizabeth Harball, E&E reporter
May 12, 2014; 4:25 AM ET
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From Superstorm Sandy in 2012 to last year's Rim fire, natural disasters are landing on America's doorsteps more often. B-roll footage on network news often shows houses in varying states of ruin -- houses underwater, houses with blown-off roofs, houses smoldering in the wake of a wildfire -- making it seem as if man is helpless in the face of the elements.

A new exhibit at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., tries to challenge this assumption.

Called "Designing for Disaster," the exhibit shows how engineers, architects, city planners and even ordinary people can make their communities safer.

The museum aims to demonstrate that whether it means choosing flame-resistant roofing material or relocating to higher ground, resiliency is more achievable than we might think, even as climate change is making our world more perilous.

"Severe weather events are increasing; we all know that, we've all been experiencing it. At the same time, more and more people are living in areas that are prone to natural hazards," Chase Rynd, the museum's executive director, said at a press preview event held yesterday at the museum. "We hope to demonstrate that design can save lives and property in the face of destructive natural causes."

"We just want people to realize there is something you can do," added architectural historian Chrysanthe Broikos, who curated the exhibit. "A lot of the exhibition is about building consumer demand for better building."

Roads can block wildfires; oyster reefs can block waves

"Designing for Disaster" begins with remains of recent ones.

A thin remnant of the boardwalk from Long Beach, N.Y., hangs on the wall, torn from its frame by Sandy. A clock from a home in Waveland, Miss., its hands stopped at 9:27 a.m. since Aug. 29, 2005 -- the day Hurricane Katrina struck the Southeast -- lies muddy and chipped in a display case. There is also an unrecognizable metal blob that was once a trailer hitch, melted in the intense heat of the Waldo Canyon fire that raged near Colorado Springs, Colo., in June and July of 2012.

A blast of wind simulating that delivered by a severe thunderstorm dismantles the house on the left, built to common Midwestern` standards, while the house on the right, the product of a tougher building code, remains intact. Photo courtesy of the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety.

In a series of rooms, the bulk of the exhibit details different building and planning methods to protect against similar disasters in the future.

In the portion devoted to wildfires, for example, visitors learn about River Bluff Ranch, a 1,000-acre housing development in Spokane County, Wash., that began construction in 2002.

Working with state foresters, the developer removed storm-damaged and diseased trees, buried utilities underground and engineered roads as fire breaks to prevent flames from spreading. The developer also prohibited wood shake roofing, which is more likely to catch fire.

Another room focuses on flood mitigation using natural systems. Large wire cages filled with oyster shells and rocks, called "culch," line the walls. When placed in coastal waters, oyster larval eggs attach to these structures and start to build a healthy reef.

Oyster reefs can help protect communities from coastal erosion and storm surges, explained Michelle Canick, conservation information manager with the Nature Conservancy, which sponsored this portion of the exhibit. "[Oyster reefs] act as a wave break, they decrease the force of the wave as it comes in," she said.

A recent study found that unlike man-made sea walls, oyster reefs are capable of growing in size to keep pace with sea-level rise (ClimateWire, April 29).

But a significant portion of the world's oyster reefs has been destroyed due to overharvesting, runoff and disease. In the Chesapeake Bay, for example, the oyster population has begun to grow, but it is still less than 1 percent of what it once was, so the Nature Conservancy and other groups have started restoration efforts there to bring back the area's natural resiliency.

'Wall of Wind' tests hurricane-proof home designs

"Designing for Disaster" also means designing homes to withstand hurricane-force winds and flying debris. In another section of the exhibit, visitors are introduced to a miniature version of Florida International University's "Wall of Wind," a research facility in Miami with 12 massive, 700-horsepower fans engineered to simulate up to Category 5 hurricane wind speeds.

At the exhibit, visitors can place different roof designs onto a tiny model house and test whether they can withstand a gust from a bank of small but powerful fans. When Broikos demonstrated one traditional-looking design, the model roof clattered to the floor.

Erik Salna, associate director of FIU's International Hurricane Research Center, explained that companies come to the Florida facility to test building materials to see how they hold up against the "Wall of Wind."

"It's as realistic as can be, and that's critical when you're taking data," Salna said. "When you see how things fail, and you have a building code in a state somewhere that's not addressing that, that's a problem. So the goal is to continue to increase the building codes; the goal is to continue to increase good building practices."

The exhibit shows video footage of a different simulator similar to the "Wall of Wind" at the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety Research Center in Richburg, S.C. One home, built to code-plus standards, remains standing after the fans are switched on. Another house, built using conventional construction practices, is blown to pieces.

A partial, stripped-away house frame in the exhibit displays one building method that can keep houses standing when hurricanes blow in. Called continuous load path construction, this method creates connections throughout the entire structure to eliminate weak points.

"If you don't have that, your roof can separate from the wall, or you can have failure between the floors," Broikos said.

"There's all kinds of products that are out there that if consumers I think just knew a little bit more about or were able to ask the next level of question, we would end up having a lot more safer, more resilient buildings," Broikos added. "... The goal of the exhibition, on the most basic level, is to try to get people to internalize and accept some risk, because that will make you change -- that will make you do something different."

"Designing for Disaster" runs through Aug. 2, 2015, at the National Building Museum, located 401 F St. NW, Washington, D.C.

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500.

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