CRAN Essay: In the Wake

From the Editor: In light of last Fall’s cancellation of the AIA Custom Residential Architects Network (AIA CRAN) annual symposium due to the aftereffects of Hurricane Irma, the leadership asked two of its panelists to present their thoughts on climate change and residential architecture in this essay.

“Rising Waters,” a panel discussion proposed to forefront dialogue on what it means to construct, live, and sustain communities within littoral regions, was planned for the September’s AIA CRAN Symposium in Miami.  Edge communities inhabiting territories within fluctuating water bodies was scheduled as the focus of the discussion, posing the central question: How do residential architects, working at the scale of a single intervention, begin to own a conscious understanding of their projects within the greater context of the surrounding environment? As the conference backdrop, Miami’s dense urban coastline emphasized the reality of these hard-lined, urban/natural or land/water edges.  However, Hurricane Irma–apropos to the cause– brought localized flooding and power outages, ultimately forcing the  cancellation of the symposium.

The fall of 2017 has witnessed the arrival of a seemingly continuous series of significant storm events in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma made landfall in August, hurricanes Jose and Maria in September, and Hurricane Nate in October, marking an intense period of storms and establishing new levels of storm severities and effects for many territories.

As with past storms, recent events will be categorized by their impact on humans and quantified through the number of human lives lost and economic destruction. The insatiable need to comprehend storm events under these finite anthropocentric categories–human lives and economic dollars–neglects focus on an environmental dialogue between affected communities and the territories they inhabit. As architects, engineers, planners, and governments mobilize to rebuild and re-envision these communities, we must diverge from the improvised and reactionary approach to reconstruction. Displacing reactionary methods with an ecological and environmentally integrated approach would transform the discourse around residential architecture. What augmented role can ecology play in the future dialogue and construct of the evolving littoral-edge community? How can humans continue to build and inhabit the wet zones in a symbiotic partnership of ecology and community, instead of a domineering role of control and disruption?

Contemporary planning regulations and protective infrastructures established by government entities such as the early Military Topographical Engineering Commission, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency set in motion cycles of reactive planning rooted in contrived methods of control. These practices, coupled with existing community and residential typologies, evolved from the collision of forces intent on preserving a static existence within a continuously evolving, fluid environment. Architectural responses to wet environments often include transformations of existing structures (raised and stilted homes), appendages or armatures extending pre-floodplain structures, and new constructions adapted to a policy-driven floodplain datum.

Littoral communities and their associated structures suffer from reactionary policy, insurance frameworks, financial interests, and disparity in social classes generating an architectural mash-up void of intent. Scrutinizing current approaches, designers and planners need to displace unary human-centric agendas with a diverse set of interests—including environmental trajectories, building science, and inhabitation. The question facing the profession of architecture in the near future is two-fold: Can architects produce buildings responsive to the surrounding environmental conditions without falling victim to the appliqué of baseline policies that serve an agenda of protection rather than coexistence?

The original low-lying structure, subject to repeated flood events, has been expanded to extend above the floodplain. The result is a series of linkages and armatures connecting various volumes, with no clear expression of program, form, or function-an architectural mash-up. Photo: Shawna and Christopher Meyer

The introduction of these ideas by designers and policymakers will serve to shift expectations of clients, dwellers, and developers—offering a clear and coherent lens to engage environment through construction. Reserving reflections on antiquated policies of control and the practice of protective infrastructures for a separate dialogue, we can focus on the charge of the residential architect and the ability to develop a new set of  living expectations.

As architects, we must draw upon our understanding of environmental impacts and embrace the responsibility to lead clients, developers, and community leaders in an ecological discussion. Residential architecture and urban planning strategies may include explanations of wet zones that would allow extensions of hydrological systems as well as planned methods of retreat. Clients must face the importance of the commitment to construct a dwelling within a littoral territory, and its potential to affect surrounding environment and ecological networks.

Wet Zones and Extensions of Hydrological Systems

The linking element among all littoral communities is the  existence of a fluctuating edge. It’s commonly perceived by inhabitants as the line or moment of separation between one distinct environment from the other—wet and dry, static and fluid. Perhaps naively, communities inhabit littoral zones and  establish neighborhoods in regions precariously close to that edge. The miscalculation is in the perception that the edge is permanent, controllable, and unchanging. Whether the edge is defined as a manmade levee wall or berm, a natural ocean shoreline, a constructed seawall, or delta landforms, it should be understood as fluid and subject to the relentless pressure to change. The edge has no fixed shape and cannot be engaged as a hard line dividing one environment from another—it is a zone of give and take that yields to the strongest pressure.

For architects and planners to acknowledge this behavior, design proposals should express certain flexibility. Landscapes configure themselves seamlessly between wet zones and dry zones. Natural elements such as depressions, swales, and channels are examples of ecological buffers serving to accommodate fluctuating water zones. These buffers can respond to the fluctuating effects of water on land without the kinds of disruptions to built structures that litter manmade materials into the environment. Similarly, public open spaces, placed strategically within the urban fabric, can create transitional zones or batteries to dissipate encroaching waters until the surrounding environment can reabsorb them. The assemblage of buildings into neighborhoods and urban centers can cultivate a much-needed cohesion between structures and the environmental character of place; these subtle nuances have a guiding voice in design.

The pump station is the beating heart of the active protective infrastructural system redirecting the rising waters away from the protected zone. Photo: Shawna and Christopher Meyer

Planned Retreat

At the severe end of the spectrum, the act of retreat acknowledges environmental pressures as guiding principles for inhabitation, or lack thereof. In such dense urban instances as New Orleans, Miami, and Manhattan, the thought of these communities resettling or retreating to higher ground is perceived as an impossibility. Highly populated urban centers spawn endless typologies of supporting infrastructure available to seamlessly integrate protective systems and environmental control structures, perpetuating habits of human command over nature. Cultural agendas and embedded knowledge of place rooted in centuries of habit render large-scale change non-negotiable, however seemingly inevitable.

For Mississippi Delta communities such as Isle de Jean Charles, La., retreat may be the only option. Rising sea levels, erosion, increased storm severity, and storm surges have begun to push residents out in search of drier ground. Isle inhabitants take with them an innate knowledge bound to the intimacy of place through their experience of the dramatic transformation of the delta. The knowledge gleaned in facing the unrelenting forces of nature will offer a powerful resource in understanding the future its former residents will be forced to call home.

The vacant stilted framework remains as a reminder of the intense environmental forces in the Mississippi Delta. Photo: Shawna and Christopher Meyer

The role of the residential architect has the capacity to create great change in human habits through the buildings people live and work in. The innovative aspirations presented in the Case Study Project from 1945–1966 are recognized as a collective and conscious effort to interpolate change in the practice of American architecture with dwellings “designed to redefine the modern home” (Elizabeth Smith, The Complete CSH Program). A  similar movement is needed within the contemporary discipline  to address urban planning, the materiality of buildings, and  the construction techniques within littoral communities. The reshoring of urban planning strategies submerged by encroaching waters and the replication and reconstruction of buildings toppled by environmental forces represents an unwillingness to acknowledge the shortcomings in our efforts.

About the Authors:

Shawna Meyer, AIA, is currently Senior Associate at KVA in Boston,  and co-author of Pamphlet Architecture 36. Christopher Meyer, AIA, is founding principal of aPC and co-author of Pamphlet Architecture 36. PA 36, to be published in spring 2018, references the dialogue that exists between two distinct yet infinitely connected environments: land and sea, or terra firma and aqua firma. Architecture should be responsible for any possible outcome; through these means, the pamphlet projects a strategic set of methods for subsisting in affected zones, grounded in the specificities of culture, context, and condition.

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