2011 AIA Convention: After Disaster, Building Back Better

Project Legacy, designed by Studio NOVA, scheduled for completion in 2014.

Courtesy Southern Louisiana Veterans Healthcare System

While disasters can expose the worst of architecture and engineering’s failures, building in the wake of disaster can sometimes bring out the best of the profession, as architects strive to learn from their predecessors’ mistakes and rebuild in a way that’s safer, resilient, and ecofriendly than before. The Make It Right project in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward comes to mind — a neighborhood of houses that AIA President Clark Manus, FAIA, praised for showing that “affordability, quality, and sustainability are not mutually exclusive.”

Another exemplary part of New Orleans’s rebuilding efforts is Project Legacy, a 1.7-million-square-foot VA medical center that will be constructed in the Mid-City area. Designed by Studio NOVA (a joint venture of NBBJ and local firms Eskew+Dumez+Ripple and Rozas Ward Architects), Project Legacy was conceived as a model of “survivability,” in case disaster ever strikes again, NBBJ Partner Doug Parris, AIA, explained in the session “Restoring Urban Infrastructure: Project Legacy in New Orleans.” The mission-critical facility is designed to be able to accommodate 1,000 people for seven days freestanding — remaining operational if cut off from all outside utilities — said Michael Benjamin, a managing principal at Bard, Rao + Athanas Consulting Engineers, adding that the energy- and water-efficient project is targeting LEED Silver certification.

To make sure the medical center could keep functioning in the event of a flood, “Basically, what we’ve designed is an upside-down hospital,” Parris explained. Instead of having functions such as patient transport, materials transport, and building systems running through the first floor or the basement, they run through the top floor. The architects also designed the facility for maximum adaptability by creating a mix of “permanent zones” and “temporal zones” that are flexible enough for a variety of uses.

Though such projects might give hope for the future, New Orleans still has a long way to go in its recovery. The population is down (100,000 people didn’t return after Katrina), 23% of people live below the poverty line, and there are 48,000 blighted homes that are vacant, said R. Allen Eskew, FAIA, of Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, in the session “From New Orleans to Detroit: Reinventing in the Wake of Disaster.” He took care to correct the popular conception that the flood in New Orleans was a natural disaster — in fact the blame should be placed on “a systemic failure of the federal levee system,” he said. “I prefer to refer to what happened to us as a natural hurricane and a federal flood.”

Similarly, faulty construction is the root cause of the massive devastation in Haiti after last year’s earthquake. In “Beyond Disaster Mitigation: An AIA Architect in Haiti,” Stacey L. McMahan, AIA, LEED AP, discussed the challenges and rewards of her time spent working with Architecture for Humanity on rebuilding efforts in that country. One obstacle has been the “make-do” culture of construction there: weak, substandard materials are pressed into service when nothing better comes to hand, such as using limestone sand to make concrete blocks, she explained. Architecture for Humanity’s program Bati Byen (meaning “Build Back Better”) is helping to change that culture through education. The organization is creating easily understandable 3-D construction drawings and conducting on-the-job training for local workers to create buildings that will be sustainable and structurally sound.

Despite the challenges, her work in Haiti has been “incredibly gratifying,” McMahan said. For architects, reconstruction after a disaster offers an uncommonly vivid opportunity to see “transformational results from our labors.”