“Design professionals can make choices to prove that disasters are not natural.”
Continuing our Designing for Disaster series, disaster expert Ilan Kelman offers advice to designers and architects on avoiding disasters.
A generation ago, in 1999, a team led by disaster scientist Dennis Mileti published a comprehensive review of disasters in the United States entitled “Disasters by Design.”. The main lesson for design professionals, based on decades of prior disaster science, was that disasters could be stopped through planning, engineering, and architecture linked to other skills and professions. A choice must be made to do so.
Choices are made by policies, laws, customer expectations, bidding details, and budget, among other constraints. How and where to locate buildings, what materials to use, and what design standards to follow.
Acknowledge limits and plan for what happens when (not if) those limits are crossed
These choices determine how well the infrastructure performs under stress. Roofs can be designed and built to withstand the strongest possible winds, such as the passage of a strong hurricane. This would be expensive and could increase problems in earthquakes, as heavy roofs can increase the likelihood of collapse. Not to mention considering the hits from the debris carried by a hurricane.
Alternatively, laws could require that wind, earthquakes, landslides, avalanches, tsunamis, volcanic ash and all other environmental hazards in addition to debris be taken into account. Many require similar design features, rather than trade-offs. The right strength and slope of roofs can handle wind, snow and volcanic ash. Designing walls, doors and windows for lateral forces helps withstand wind, flood water and debris.
Apart from that, there are few structures that can withstand everything from nature, and they may not be comfortable to use. Instead, understandable choices are made to balance different needs.
Acknowledge limits and plan for what happens when (not if) those limits are crossed. As long as plenty of warning is available along with safe and effective evacuation routes and shelter for everyone, it is often better to get out of the way of a fire or flood and then rebuild. Hence, the authorities and affected people must commit and ensure warning, evacuation, shelter and reconstruction support for all.
Disaster is not fire, flood or wind. Sometimes people suffer during these hazards and sometimes they do not. Disaster occurs when infrastructure collapse leads to suffering, when people die during evacuation or shelter, or when there is no support for shelter and reconstruction, and people suffer again. The disaster is the suffering of people, not how buildings are affected by nature.
Disasters result from long-term societal decisions made with and without design professionals to avoid, prepare for, mitigate and plan for environmental phenomena. The disaster comes from society, not from nature.
The disaster is the suffering of people, not how buildings are affected by nature
To convey this message and place responsibility for disasters on those with the power and resources to stop them, it is best to avoid the phrase “natural disaster.” Disasters are not natural.
So what to do about the changing environment due to human-caused climate change? For hurricanes, the verdict is still out on how they will be affected. Meanwhile, human-caused climate change appears to be leading to fewer hurricanes, but the ones that form are more intense, meaning stronger winds and much more rainfall.
Designing for fewer tornadoes under human-caused climate change makes no sense, since a tornado could hit Tornado Alley during tornado season. Considering more intense hurricanes is important for the design, although it would have been necessary even without human-caused climate change, since floodplains and winds are affected by local decisions such as river geometry and high-rise building development.
In fact, a powerful hurricane can strike any year in any location prone to hurricanes. The climate has been changing for a long time, even without human influence, including multi-decade cycles that cause hurricane numbers to wax and wane. Now, we are changing the climate rapidly and fundamentally, beyond modern human experience, with the effects all around us now visible everywhere.
One of the huge and frightening changes that affects infrastructure and kills people every summer is heat waves that are longer and more intense than we have previously experienced.
The signal from human-induced climate change is evident in temperature and humidity values exceeding the ability of humans to survive outdoors, from India and Pakistan to London and Paris to British Columbia and Washington State. We can attribute many heatwave deaths to human-caused climate change, especially when the weather doesn’t cool enough over successive nights and our bodies don’t recover from the heat of the day.
We are caught up in broader societal systems and expectations that impose choices on us that can lead to disasters
Internal cooling twenty-seven is one method. It’s expensive, it overburdens the power grid causing power outages, and not everyone can stay indoors during a heatwave. Jobs in agriculture, construction and delivery are particularly affected. Lingerie workers in South Asia are also feeling the effects, as their workplaces are often crowded due to poor ventilation. Implementing designs to assist all of these sectors with the expected temperature and humidity combinations is challenging.
Instead, halting human-caused climate change would be the most successful option for avoiding heatwave disasters. Laws and policies can require infrastructure that includes reducing energy use while shifting to local and renewable energy supplies.
Broader planning aspects would support walking, cycling and public transport, taking into account safety, reliability and all-weather conditions. These points then go back to avoiding disasters in any weather – including the terrifying heatwaves that are occurring now and are sure to get worse due to human-caused climate change.
Design professionals can make choices to prove that disasters are not natural. Too often, we become caught up in broader societal systems and expectations that impose choices on us that can lead to disaster.
It is especially difficult to address all concerns together. Imagine designing and building a school that is self-sufficient in energy and water while sitting outside an expanding floodplain – ideal for climate change, but then collapsing in the next earthquake. Or build a school that is completely disaster-resistant and can withstand all the effects of climate change, in a country that does not allow girls to attend.
“Disasters by design” refers not only to damage to infrastructure during weather and other environmental phenomena. It also refers to long-term societal decisions that force people into conditions that cause problems in their daily lives.
Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London’s Institute for Disaster and Risk Reduction, and the author of several books on the subject of disasters, including Disasters by Choice.
Image courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration via Unsplash.
Design for disasters
This article is part of Dezeen’s Designing for Disaster series, which explores the ways design can help prevent, mitigate and recover from natural hazards as climate change makes extreme weather events increasingly common.