Disaster architecture: Rising from the ashes

Rebuild by Design’s plans to construct a seawall around New York City

Urban planners are responding to climate change and natural disasters with innovative and potentially lifesaving counter measures

The devastation brought by geohazards such as tropical cyclones, tsunamis, seasonal flooding and earthquakes, is changing the way designers and developers approach their work.

With the number of climate-related disasters rising since the 1970s – an 80 percent increase from 1980 to 2009, according to weather forecasting service provider AccuWeather – post-disaster architecture experts are now in high demand.

Japanese architect Shigeru Ban’s efforts in his home country and other parts of the world, for instance, have been recognised by his peers, winning him the prestigious 2014 Pritzker Prize.

Upon claiming the honour early last year, he told CNN: “I thought this was not awarded because I reached a certain level as an architect, but as encouragement for me to continue working in disaster areas as well as designing architecture.”

Ban recently built his trademark paper log houses in communities in central Philippines that were affected by the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan. Made from readily accessible recycled or native materials, including beer crates, coconut wood and woven bamboo sheet, the temporary buildings were also constructed in New Zealand after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake.

Typhoon Haiyan left thousands of homes, businesses and centuries-old buildings destroyed, and, according to United Nations estimates, disrupted the lives of an estimated 11 million people in the Visayan region. Many urban planners consequently spoke out in favour of architects and designers embracing more resilient and sustainable designs that can withstand natural calamities occurring annually.

A building on Boracay island was completely left in ruins after the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan

Various organisations have since promoted the importance of sustainable design and architecture in the country, including renowned property developer Ortigas & Co., which held a nationwide contest in 2014, in collaboration with the Department of Science and Technology and the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity, to find the most innovative disaster-proof and green building concepts from young designers.

Another leading developer, Vista Land Corporation, is in negotiations with water management experts in the Netherlands, including Rotterdam University and Dutch companies Flexbase, Arcadis and Delta Sync, to build ‘floating houses’ that can survive heavy flooding in coastal areas like Metro Manila. Each house will cost an estimated PHP500,000 (USD11,100) to build.

“I believe Asia is adopting sustainability in a serious way,” said Professor Philip Cox, director and founder of Cox Architecture, an Australia-based firm that specialises in sustainable designs. “The take on sustainability in Asia is that it should not just become a clichéd statement but actively practiced. This trend will continue as companies become increasingly environmentally concerned.”

Cox’s team, which recently opened a new office in Kuala Lumpur, has also contributed towards the ongoing recovery of New Zealand’s second largest city Christchurch that has so far cost NZD40 million (USD32 million) to rebuild.

Shigeru Ban’s ‘cardboard cathedral’ was built after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake that damaged the city’s cathedral

“The recovery of Christchurch has been a long and labour intensive process,” he added. “Buildings that withstood the earthquake are still being examined for safety and the replacement of the destroyed buildings has been difficult.”

Although changes to the building practice have been introduced, one of the key issues, according to Cox, related to the older buildings that were constructed when such codes were in their infancy or non-existent.

Building code updates are not the only significant changes that were implemented in disaster-prone areas. In south Asia, where the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami displaced some two million people, including half a million in Indonesia and Thailand, local governments and establishments are also prepared for the next disaster that may come.

“Today in Phuket there are tsunami warning systems in place and other parts of Thailand that could be impacted by a future tsunami,” said Mark Price, CEO of Savills (Thailand) Limited, adding that Phuket’s market recovery was thankfully aided by increased foreign investments.

Climate change has severely affected other major coastal cities across the globe, like New York, which was battered by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. An organisation called Rebuild by Design, established in June 2013 by the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force and the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, aims to address the structural and environmental vulnerabilities of such calamities via an international sustainable design competition.

“Rebuild by Design team members had individuals and firms from various countries and represented disciplines such as design, engineering, landscape architecture and academia,” said Amy Chester, managing director of the programme. “The winning designs present a marriage between accepting the realities and danger of climate change, and trying to reshape our communities in new and previously unthinkable ways so that they can be more resilient in the face of our evolving climate.”

She added that new design plans should be considered for every urban area, because no single framework would work in all locations.

Meanwhile, some experts suggest that the introduction of adaptive migration schemes – essentially mass relocation – and ‘coastal unbuilding’ would reduce the necessity for an overhaul in coastal construction methods.

Modern floating houses could be what perennially flooded coastal cities need

“Being green is no longer enough; we need design-resilient solutions where our cities and our people can adapt to pending threats of global warming and natural disasters,” said Cyndy Tan Jarabata, head of TAJARA Leisure & Hospitality Group Inc and chairperson of the Philippines Property Awards board of judges. “We also need to consider development of communities or townships outside key cities, in order to decongest larger urban centres.”

Professor Cox proposes a different plan: “People in Asia have now a new love relationship with waterfronts and rivers. Cities can be planned for rising sea levels and for tsunami; however, the benefits of pleasant places on waterfronts and coast lines, to live and work, close to the water with the benefits of more equitable climate outweigh the negative sides.”

He also noted the reality that the world is facing today. “Nobody can predict natural disasters, and even taking into account major cities such as San Francisco in California being on a major fault line does not diminish its importance as a world city,” he said. “We have to be mindful of the impacts of natural disasters on cities of the world and how we will cope with them.”