Resilient People, Resilient Buildings

Working heavily in the multifamily industry, I get to travel around the country on a regular basis. One of the places I am fortunate to visit frequently is Puerto Rico. It has been interesting, on many levels, to watch the island recover since hurricanes Irma and Maria did their damage.

I was asked to visit one of our affordable-housing projects outside of San Juan about a month after Maria blew through town to determine if there was any damage. What I saw in Puerto Rico surprised me, both good and bad. What was heartbreaking to see was the sheer amount of damage that occurred. Any structure constructed of light-gauge steel or roofed in metal panels was almost totally destroyed. San Juan was mostly without power, which included all traffic signals. As you might imagine, driving during this period became a bit of a Wild West showdown at most intersections. The citizens of Puerto Rico don’t exactly ascribe to the four-way stop rule if a traffic light is out.

Because almost all the hotels were shuttered because of damage, I had to rent an Airbnb in Old San Juan that had power, internet and running water, three luxuries at the time. Walking to dinner the first night there, I wandered through the streets of Old San Juan. What I found was not the desolation that I anticipated, but a city that was active and full of activity. People were out and about, walking around, enjoying the city, seemingly indifferent to the fact that power had been lost for a month. Although restaurants were generally closed, food trucks lined the streets and were happily serving people everything from full meals to dessert treats. It was at that moment I realized just how resilient the citizens of Puerto Rico were and how they had adapted life to conditions that I cannot fathom living in.

Although devastating in nature, Maria and Irma weren’t the first hurricanes to hit the island. Being a vulnerable island in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico learned long ago how to work with the constraints of natural disasters. Wood-framed structures are almost non-existent on the island. Most buildings and homes are constructed of poured concrete or concrete block making them much stronger and durable. Many homes have incorporated aspects of solar-thermal hot-water heating, which doesn’t require electricity or gas to produce hot water. A typical home in Puerto Rico does not rely on mechanical cooling. Buildings are oriented to work with the natural airflow patterns to take advantage of cooling breezes.

I was reminded of an image that made an impression on me as a young architect. Shortly after Hurricane Andrew wreaked havoc on the state of Florida, an insulated concrete form (ICF) manufacturer placed an ad in one of the mainstream architecture journals. The ad was an aerial image of a Florida subdivision that was almost totally destroyed. All of the homes were obliterated, with the exception of one home that did not appear to have sustained very much damage—the home constructed of ICFs and poured concrete. I cannot think of an image that had a more lasting impression on me in my formative years in architecture. I instantly understood the impact of durability and became an advocate for concrete construction and implemented its use in residential and commercial projects.

It’s still too soon to see what the long-term damage will be from Hurricane Florence that hit the Carolinas. Hundreds of thousands of people lost power and likely will be without for a month or more. The time has come for us to reinvent our building stock as long-lasting durable structures that are able to withstand the tests of time, human erosion and natural disasters. We need a paradigm shift in design thinking, beyond notions like building-code minimum construction. It’s time for us to consider how to make buildings function in times when we are without utilities.

If you would like to learn more about resilience in buildings, I highly suggest attending the retrofit annual conference on Oct. 9, 2018, at the Westin Charlotte in Charlotte, N.C. Building resilience will be a topic that we cover in-depth with three industry experts willing to share their knowledge, as well as a keynote from the National Institute of Building Sciences speaking about resilient communities. We hope to see you there.

About the Author

Nathan M. Gillette
Nathan M. Gillette, AIA, LEED AP O+M, CEM, is director of Natura Architectural Consulting, Grand Rapids, Mich., and a retrofit editorial advisor. He works with clients to successfully implement and manage energy efficiency and sustainability projects.

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