A journalist by training, Meline Toumani shocked friends and family by moving to Turkey and embarking on a journey to understand a people and a country she'd been taught were the enemy. The result is "There Was and There Was Not," part political history, part deeply personal memoir.
When the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis buckled during rush-hour in August 2007, the collapse underscored how faulty infrastructure can bring disaster to communities in an instant. Though some communities are able to prepare for — and mitigate — disaster from rusted steel and even forces of nature, others struggle to update structures that remain vulnerable to time and the elements. We talk with architect Roger Lewis and National Building Museum curator Chrysanthe Broikos about how designers and engineers are finding new ways to build aesthetically pleasing, disaster-resilient structures amid changing weather patterns and building codes.
“Designing for Disaster,” the National Building Museum’s newest exhibit, explores the latest innovation and research around trying to build communities that are safer from natural disasters.
For a look behind the scenes of the exhibit, including a “Wall of Wind” built by Florida International University, watch this video with museum curator Chrysanthe Broikos.
- Roger Lewis Architect; Columnist, "Shaping the City," Washington Post; and Professor Emeritus of Architecture, University of Maryland College Park
- Chrysanthe Broikos Curator, National Building Museum
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Erosion, earthquakes, hurricanes and floods, all part of a frightening list of curve balls Mother Nature can throw our way. And all apt to bring chaos that can take lives and upend communities when they strike. But given advances in building materials, new techniques for managing risk and innovative solutions to age old problems, we're creating more resilient structures including homes, offices, bridges and stadiums in our cities and towns.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to talk about how we can mitigate risk in our built environment is Roger Lewis, he is an architect who writes the "Shaping the City" column for the Washington Post and Professor Emeritus of Architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. Roger, good to see you.
MR. ROGER LEWISThank you for having me again.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Chrysanthe Broikos, curator at the National Building Museum where she oversaw the creation of the exhibit "Designing for Disaster," on view now. Chrysanthe, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. CHRYSANTHE BROIKOSThanks for having me.
NNAMDIYou can go to our website, kojoshow.org, where you can see a video of some of the "Designing for Disaster" exhibit at the National Building Museum. You can also join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850, sending an email to email@example.com or sending us a Tweet @kojoshow. Roger, some areas are more vulnerable to the rigors of Mother Nature then others. How much of the planning process when planning a resilient structure, is about first choosing the right location?
LEWISWell, often, those are separate events. That is the choice of where to put something versus designing something to put on that play. So, I think, we would all agree that the first thing to do is to not build in places where the risks are high. We haven't been very good at that. So -- but on the other hand, once you're in a place that's subject to flood or earthquake or hurricane, yes, then what we have to do is figure out how to engineer our structures and I include infrastructure as well as buildings to stand up to the forces that are likely to occur.
NNAMDIChrysanthe, location, location, location. If we look at the exhibits list of presidential disaster declarations, well, Florida, Texas, California, all tend to jump out at us as locations where one has to be careful.
BROIKOSDefinitely. California is in the news today again with wildfire. They're, you know, very susceptible. Earthquakes, of course, tsunami, erosion, landslides. I mean, unfortunately, they have it -- they have it all. They don't have hurricanes, they're kind of safe from that one. But -- and many -- one of the things I learned is that almost three-quarters of the country is at risk for -- is at moderate to significant risk for at least one natural hazard. And that's pretty staggering.
NNAMDIRoger, so it doesn't matter where you're going to be building, wherever in the nation you happen to be building, you need to take into account what is going to be taking place in that building. Buildings have to be sensitive to movement.
LEWISThat's right. Well, a lot of it has to do with probabilities. And in fact, most of the building codes, I think we ought to remind reader -- the listeners that, throughout the United States there are building codes that stipulate design and engineering standards that are meant to enhance life safety and we call them life safety codes. And there's -- most of them take into account what those risks are up to a point. So, for example, we generally design buildings to resist wind loads up to, perhaps, a 120 miles an hour.
LEWISThe probability that you'll experience that in a building might be three percent. The probability that you experience 175 mile an hour winds might be one percent, but that's one out of a 100. And when that -- and when the 175 mile an hour wind comes along, you're in trouble. I think that people should understand that it is all about probabilities. When we engineer -- or when we design, an engineer structures. Whatever they are we are trying to mitigate the risks that, Chrysanthe spoke of, up to a reasonable level of probability. But the probability is never zero.
NNAMDIWell, go ahead, Chrysanthe.
BROIKOSWell, no. I was just going to say that, you know, Roger mentioned the codes. And it seems, there has been, from what I can tell, you know, a significant improvement, I think, in the codes in the last 15 years or so. In part, because the code regime has changed, the organizations that are facilitating the developments of the code itself. And then there has been this recognition, in certain areas, that if you are, for example, in a high hurricane, you know, wind zone or if you are in a high fire zone, that we can stipulate a different code for those areas. And that is being done. And that's relatively new. But that, I think, is really having a significant change.
NNAMDIThese codes, however Roger, building codes, vary significantly depending on where you are. How much of the design process, for any given structure, is about adhering to those guidelines and mitigating potential problems from the start?
LEWISWell, almost any licensed engineer or architect will tell you that it -- that you run as you do when you first start to design something, is you take a look at the codes because that's -- they generally are the minimum, they're not to exceed the maximum. They are the minimum of standards. So those are taking into account right away. I think, the -- for example, fire safety, which is the one that, I think, has most -- has sometimes the most effect on what you see in buildings, carter lengths, exit ways, smoke and fire protection and so forth.
LEWISThose codes have definitely been enhanced over the years. We have much less, I would say, much less risk of disaster due to fire today then we had a 100 years ago. I mean, it was -- because for the reasons that Chrysanthe points out. But the level of design has improved. But again, there are times when something occurs through a series of sometimes human error that undo the protections or they get by the defenses, if you will.
NNAMDITalk about the differences, if you will, between prescribed building codes and required building code features. And what kind of features fall into each or either of those categories?
LEWISI -- those are basically synonymous. I mean, what is -- most codes will stipulate some minimum level of performance. So, for example, I mention wind loads earlier, they -- in certain zones, for example, the wind loading that you have to worry about in Florida is different than the wind load you might worry about in Oklahoma. Well, not really...
BROIKOSReally. I was going to say.
LEWIS...Oklahoma is worse. What am I saying. Oklahoma's worse because we have tornados, of course, which are -- can be even more violent. Although the probability at any -- anywhere on the Great Plains, that you're gonna get hit by a tornado is probably less then living in Florida and experiencing a hurricane. But in any event, all of these -- all of these codes have -- stipulate, usually a minimum and you can always exceed that and it's not always done because it has cost implications. So we haven't talked about economics here. But the other constraint, we could design buildings to resist 200 mile an hour winds but it would cost...
LEWIS...much more then we're willing to invest in those buildings.
NNAMDIWe're talking about "Designing for Disaster," that's the name of the exhibit, currently, at the National Building Museum. Joining us in studio is Chrysanthe Broikos, she is the curator of that exhibit. And Roger Lewis, he is an architect. He writes the "Shaping the City" column for the Washington Post and he's Professor Emeritus of Architecture at the University of Maryland, College Park. Have you done renovations on your home that included features making it more resilient to natural forces?
NNAMDITell us about them, if so, 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Chrysanthe, as a society, we tend to talk about these issues, usually in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy. But the conversation often seems to peter out. What inspired this exhibit, on view through next summer on "Designing for Disaster?" And what do you hope people will take away from it?
BROIKOSYou know, we first started talking about the show in 2008. And it was actually right after the building museums public programming, after Katrina was coming to an end. We did a series of programs called, "Building in the Aftermath." And I think, in part we realized that, you know, the conversation wasn't over and that's how we really came to really start to think about mitigation and what can we do long term, right, to think about how to prevent those -- the impact of the natural hazard or reduce the impact or, in fact, prepare better.
BROIKOSAnd it, it is often -- it often happens after that disaster, but in order for it to really mean something long-term, you have to start thinking about it long before the disaster happens. And that's when we realized that the -- was, you know, a very important topic that we thought we needed to engage with.
NNAMDIShould we the right to build exactly what we want, where we want, no matter the risks?
BROIKOSI'm apt to say, no, in some cases. I mean, I do think there are some things that, you know, we may just -- it may be wiser as a society for us to say, you know, that's not the best thing to do.
NNAMDIShould we give more thought, Roger, to the long-term viability and protection of the structures in communities we build?
LEWISAbsolutely. I mean, I think that there are many things that we've done over the last century that we -- that if we tried to do them today, starting over, we wouldn’t do them. We'd probably -- we might rethink building the city of New Orleans below sea level, next to the sea. We might stay away from seismic fault lines that are well understood and documented. We might not build on steep slopes or put buildings at the foot of a steep embankment that, with enough rain, could come sliding down. I mean, you can just -- you can just go through the list and say, wait, what are we doing? Why are we -- why do we have buildings six feet above sea level in New Jersey?
LEWISThese are things that we probably should not have done but we have them. So now what we're talking about, I think that what Chrysanthe's exhibit talks about is what to do with where we are. What do we have now? Going forward, I think we're being more diligent. I think, jurisdictions, federal, state and local are being much more diligent about saying, No, when someone wants to create something in a place that's clearly very, very susceptible to disaster.
NNAMDI...Rich, in Arnold, Md. Rich, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RICHYeah, good morning. One of the things I don't hear about in California, about the wild fires is a chaparral. It -- there's like 10 million acres of chaparral in California. And it's a fire climax community. It depends on fire for its continued growth. And I never hear anybody say anything about that. Because the -- I mean, you build in a chaparral area, I can almost guarantee you, you gonna get burned out. I know, because I wrote the original safety element for the city of Los Angeles, master plan back in the late '70s. So I've got some background in it.
NNAMDICare to talk about that, Roger?
LEWISWell, I think he -- he makes the point. I mean, this is just underscoring what we've been saying. There are -- that's a place where you are asking for trouble.
NNAMDIYeah, when you build there.
NNAMDIWhen you start including these features in construction, things like fire resistant shingles, tornado resistant safe rooms or flood mitigation options. What does it look like, Chrysanthe? Would we see a star, a noticeable difference, for example, between a house with resilient features and one without?
BROIKOSNo. I think that's one of the -- one of the difficult things about creating the exhibit, quite frankly. A lot of this stuff is behind the scenes. But I honestly think that's probably a good thing because one of the things that in the design community, I think, was a problem in getting folks to adopt green building or sustainable design was because people thought it was ugly, quite frankly, right. Or that there was -- at the beginning, say in the 1970s, and it took a lot of convincing to folks to say, you know what? You can be sustainable and beautiful at the same time.
BROIKOSAnd maybe here in Washington we tend to think this way because of not natural disasters but the other kinds of disasters that befall us and...
NNAMDIWhich is one of the reasons why you call this exhibit design for disaster as opposed to design against disaster. Because one of the things that people think Tom Sherwood complained about most in Washington is the notion of designing against disaster and causing buildings to look more like fortresses.
BROIKOSRight. So I think the good news about natural disasters is we can actually work with nature and actually create better, more beautiful places if we do it well. If we rethink, for example, the waterfront and how we're, you know, navigating that line, the water's edge, we can create lovely, beautiful amenities for ourselves, parks, you know, that can flood if they need to. And when they're not flooded we're all able to enjoy that. It's recreational space.
NNAMDIOh, that's a relief. Roger.
LEWISWell, this reminds me of work I did in the '90s. I designed some buildings in Vero Beach, Fla. And in addition to doing the hurricanes where we had -- the structure was engineered with tie downs and all kinds of reinforcement to make sure that they wouldn't blow away in hurricane-force winds, we also had to make sure that if there was a storm surge, if water came up, the building would be transparent to the water. So there were what are called hydrodynamic and hydrostatic apertures in the bottom level of these buildings that I designed that when the water rises, the water just passes through it.
LEWISIt'll mess up some automobiles because we do have storage and automobile parking at that level, but there's absolutely no occupied spaces, no electrics, nothing other than cars and empty suitcases at that level. But the idea was to let the water through, not keep it out but to actually let it flow right through, if you will, the lower level of the building.
NNAMDIAnd Chrysanthe, in the instance say of an earthquake, you know the building's going to move. So you just kind of let it move?
BROIKOSWell, I mean, that's -- you know, since both the 1989 Loma Prieta quake in San Francisco and then the 1994 earthquake in Northridge in Los Angeles, that's really been where engineers have gone in terms of recognizing and trying to actually plan for where that failure might occur so that we can better manage it. And that means -- that's where the terminology of saying building smarter and building safer really comes from. We can essentially kind of figure out where that failure might occur and then go in and fix just that one portion or that one segment or section.
BROIKOSYou know, it's a whole lot easier to fix a segment of the road, right, than the entire bridge, for example, or the roadbed. So if we can start doing that more where -- you know, it's a tremendous cost savings. That's the other -- Roger did bring that up previously. The statistics show that for every dollar we invest in mitigation, we save that -- we save $4 in costs later. So, I mean, that's fairly significant. We think -- that was a public sector.
BROIKOSI think the -- I was talking to some folks yesterday who said in the private sector they think that might even be more, so that it could be extremely cost effective if we start thinking in t hat way.
NNAMDIHold that thought, Roger. We've got to take a short break right now. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation about designing for disaster, taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Have you -- are you an architect or an engineer who has worked on designing resilient structures? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Or you can go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about designing for disaster with Chrysanthe Broikos, curator at the National Building Museum. She oversaw the creation of the exhibit Designing for Disaster, which is on view now. Also joining us in studio is Roger Lewis. He's an architect who writes the Shaping the City column for the Washington Post. Roger's also professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. 800-433-8850 is the number to call.
NNAMDINot all buildings have resilience built in. And when it comes to older structures facing unexpected strain, we have some good examples right here in our backyard. The Washington Monument reopened this week three years post quake and the completion of both National Cathedral and Union Station's repairs are still a ways off. What are the special challenges that historic buildings and sites pose in terms of retrofitting, Roger?
LEWISWell, the first challenge is, of course, most of them were not designed to resist earthquakes. And essentially what they've done to the Washington Monument, which is a gravity structure. It's held up because of the weight of the stone. But what they've done is gone back in and through some very fastidious and I would say risky repair work with the scaffolding and people hanging off of cables, they've gone an essentially made the stone -- locked it up -- locked it together in a way that if it's shaking again it won't fall off.
LEWISAnd they basically have stiffened it and kind of glued it together, if I can use that metaphor, better than it was before. Before, as I understand it, the stonework essentially just depended on the weight of individual stones to keep it altogether. In California they've also done the same thing retrofitting a lot of older buildings. They've gone in an stiffened them. They can't -- they haven't been able to always change foundation configurations.
LEWISBut you can resist earthquake one of two ways. You can stiffen a building so that it just stands up due to its structural stability as the earth shakes the building, or you can separate the building from the earth, in effect allowing the building to stay where it is in space as the earth moves underneath it, as if the building were on roller skates and it was able to stay where it was while the earth shifts laterally.
LEWISThey have all kinds of resilient fittings that they can also put -- build into foundations that act as dampers, act as shock absorbers. And there's some on display at this exhibit. They're (sic) very impressive to see these things. And they can sometimes retrofit foundations systems so that the building, again, is isolated somewhat from the earth.
NNAMDIYes. Talk about some of the things you can see at the exhibit, including the stairs that you push a button, they start shifting around in a way that makes them useable.
BROIKOSWell, this is a project at -- sorry, at Berkeley -- University of California Berkeley, California Memorial Stadium. It was built in 1923 and just recently it was retrofitted. It was a unique challenge because not only did they need to accommodate the ground shaking, but it just so happens the stadium is actually bisected by the Hayward Fault. So incredibly they also have to deal with fault rupture. In other words, you know, the idea that the ground could actually separate right there in the stadium.
BROIKOSWhat they actually ended up -- I mean, they have multiple strategies for how to deal with all of the conditions there, but they essentially ended up separating the concrete seating bowl into six different structures that are each separated by a 1' gap. So we essentially have a seismic gap that needs to be covered. So what we're actually showing with that stair is the expansion joint cover covering a food gap.
BROIKOSSo it's incredible to think that, you know, that's how we're designing now, though, you know, we're realizing that, you know, trying to keep a huge stadium like that together is probably not a wise thing, especially in that location. So they came up with some unique ways to deal with that.
NNAMDIBefore I get to the phones, Roger, more broadly all kinds of homes, offices and structures can be retrofitted to better guard against the elements. Where are we most likely to see that kind of activity and what kinds of options are there for areas facing each of the four elements?
LEWISWell, I think California keeps coming up on the radar screen for obvious reasons. I mean, I -- and there are some wonderful maps in this exhibit that show, again, in effect, the probability of these disasters, of these forces coming to bear. There's no question that California, more than any other place in the country, is facing always the challenge of earthquakes that can be devastating.
LEWISI think there are -- I think a lot of the coastal areas of the United States and other places are very susceptible. I mean, if we continue to see what we've been seeing, which is climate change-induced storms and surges that raise -- bring water levels up, not one or two inches but feet, there are trillions of dollars of real estate, property near coastal -- near the coasts that are going to need intervention.
LEWISNow that -- you know, one intervention is to leave. I mean, one move is to say, maybe I shouldn't live here 5' above sea level. They've rebuilt some of the housing that was destroyed by Sandy and they've elevated. You know, they've said, well okay, we'll do what we did in Florida. We'll just move the first floor. Instead of it being 6' above sea level, it's going to be 16' above sea level. Again, that is -- that's in a way a compromise because ultimately you might say we really shouldn't have any houses there at all, I mean, if we were to start over again.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones and Eric in Fairfax, Va. Eric, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ERICYes. Hi. Well, you -- I heard you asking if you're an engineer...
ERIC...to call in. So I'm an engineer and I actually teach class -- as an adjunct professor I teach class at George Mason University. I teach several classes. One is a graduate course on infrastructure management.
NNAMDIWhich is where we were going next, so please go ahead.
ERICYeah, so one of the subjects that we -- that I cover in the class with the students is the -- how do you begin thinking differently as an engineer about hardening infrastructure. When you're planning for infrastructure, how you begin to look at how you harden infrastructure. How do you go back and re-evaluate the design standards, the criteria that you've been relying on for decades knowing that things are changing? Storm frequencies are changing, intensity of rain storms are changing, rising sea levels, and so and so.
ERICIt's a combination and a challenge to students both in terms of the engineering challenges. But really I also challenge them to think in terms of the political challenges, financial challenges that these engineers are going to face when they are presenting their case to elected officials. How do you justify the added expense? How do you come up with the proper information that support your findings when there isn't maybe that much information out there to base your case on.
ERICYou've got to go out there and you've got to begin digging and you've got to begin looking for information...
ERIC...that may or may not exist.
NNAMDI...you raise all of the important questions, so thank you very much for raising them. Just yesterday, President Obama appeared at the foot of the Tappan Zee Bridge calling on congress to pass a $302 billion transportation bill that he said would support hundreds of thousands of jobs while repairing the nation's roads and bridges. So obviously there is a political aspect to this.
NNAMDICatastrophic events aside though, Roger, sometimes a structure simply outlives its lifespan, can bring disaster absent a storm or other factors. We see that issue with the thousands of bridges across the country that are structurally deficient. Is our system for testing and replacing public infrastructure as rigorous as it should be?
LEWISThe answer's no. I mean, I was just at a conference on infrastructure up in Cambridge, Mass. in March. And I think the -- there was no one at that conference who wouldn't have said no. I mean, I think we've -- Americans -- as I've said on this program many times, this is a very utilitarian culture we live in. If it ain't broke don't fix it is the watchword, the mantra. You know, we have -- it's very hard to get people -- talking about politics and economics -- to think long term.
LEWISI mean, we're having this debate about building new infrastructure, about light rail and other such things, which are really long term investments. And -- but getting people to think long term when they might have to pay the bill in the near term is very challenging. I think that Eric alluded to that, I think, in his question.
NNAMDIHe definitely did. And Chrysanthe, is that one of the purposes of design for disaster to enable people to see that ultimately in the long term there are some thing we're simply going to have to do?
BROIKOSYeah, definitely. I think one of the goals has been to encourage people, in a sense, to demand better built structures. To Eric's point I would say, you know, one of the things I keep hearing about is lifecycle costs, right. Not the initial cost of the building but what's the long term cost in terms of maintain the building, in terms of when it does need to be replaced and thinking about those costs up front. And that it is a way for people to potentially recognize that spending a little bit more up front and investing more, you know, at the beginning can actually save costs over the long term.
BROIKOSAs Roger mentioned, we don't necessarily think like that in our society but I think we're starting to ask those questions, especially given, you know, the economic situation and where the budget is. You know, we just can't seem to invest like we used to so we need to be investing more wisely. And asking some of those questions can help, I think, make the right decisions.
NNAMDIEric, thank you very much for your call.
NNAMDIMoving on now to Jerome in Washington, D.C. Jerome, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JEROMEYes. Hello. I work in the United Nations and many other countries to retrofit simple buildings. (unintelligible) was there for four years and other places, Bangladesh where there's a lot of storms. And what's tough is to train the masons in simple designs for the buildings. And what is difficult is to find the right design sometimes. (unintelligible) to know whether you know of simple designs and how you develop those designs for buildings for the community or for individual fisherman's house or other types.
LEWISWell, I spent two years...
NNAMDIYour Algerian experience.
LEWISWell, I -- Tunisia.
LEWISJerome, I spent two years in the Peace Corps in North Africa in Tunisia. And we -- I used to call the buildings that we designed and built reinforced rock architecture because essentially we would dig up the stone. Sometimes we had access to masonry but the -- all of the buildings there were designed using reinforced concrete frames, a skeleton that essentially was laced through the building.
LEWISAll of the walls and partitions were made of masonry, very susceptible in earthquakes. But what held it together was this -- what the French call the (word?) , these chain -- chain work, if you will, of concrete columns and beams and girders. That's what kept it standing under these lateral loads that earthquakes generate.
NNAMDISo, Jerome, that may be of some help to you. Thank you very much for your call. You too can call us at 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. When traveling have you noticed building styles unique to certain places that seem to help structures stay in place? Tell us about them if so, 800-433-8850. You can also shoot us a Tweet @kojoshow. Chrysanthe, as much as we might think we're in control, an attempt to fight Mother Nature is often a losing battle. How much of this is about working with nature rather than against it?
BROIKOSI think with certain hazards that's definitely possible. And we've already alluded to -- with earthquake, even just the idea of not necessarily resisting everything but allowing it to move a little bit, right, is in fact working with nature. We can really do that, I think, more successfully with natural systems, solutions, when we're talking about fire and water. Where if we -- one of the examples in the fire gallery is the Santa Fe water shed where they're actually doing prescribed burns to help manage their forests.
BROIKOSSo instead of, you know, past policies where we crushed or, you know, didn't want any fire in any place, we're realizing that natural fire or fire does occur naturally. And what that does is actually burn off fuel that, if it doesn't happen, when another fire happens we've got so much built up fuel that those fires tend to turn catastrophic. So we're realizing that, you know, we need to work a little bit more with the natural cycles in order to -- that can help, actually, help us manage nature in a sense.
NNAMDIOne of the things that you'll see if you go to our website, kojoshow.org, is a video of the wind model at the "Design for Disaster" exhibit in action. Talk a little bit about that.
BROIKOSWell, we modeled -- there's -- it's called the "The Wall of Wind," at Florida International University. They're actually the only university-based test facility that can simulate category 5 hurricane winds. And we created a little mini wall of wind, where you can actually test roof shapes. So something as simple as the design of your roof can actually have a big impact on if you're going to survive a hurricane or not. And in the exhibit you can play around with different roof shapes and see how that works. So I encourage people to come down and do that.
NNAMDIWe've got to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your call. If you'd like to call, the number is 800-433-8850. You can send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about designing for disaster with Roger Lewis, architect and writer of the "Shaping the City" column for the Washington Post, also professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. And Chrysanthe Broikos, curator at the National Building Museum. She oversaw the creation of the exhibit, "Designing for Disaster," that is on view there right now.
NNAMDIAs much as you can anticipate the kind of disasters you're vulnerable to in any given area, at least to some extent. There are others that kind of spring up on you for a variety of reasons. Human error may be one of them. What's the kind of threshold of risks that we should keep in mind as being inevitable?
LEWISWell, there's always risks. We have, again, mitigated a great deal. For example, for the last 30 years almost all buildings have to be sprinklered. And sprinkler systems are very effective at suppressing fire. And they've proved to be -- as Chrysanthe pointed out, it adds some costs. We haven't -- because of grandfathering there are a lot of buildings that still do not have sprinklers, particularly homes. But in the homes built in most jurisdictions, certainly a lot of jurisdictions around here in the last 25 years are sprinklered.
LEWISThis is a very, very effective way to suppress fire. The…
NNAMDIOh, go ahead.
LEWISWell, just -- I think we should point out that sometimes design or engineering mistakes are made. They come back to haunt us. And some things just wear out. You know, after 50 years of trucks and busses and automobiles passing over a bridge where there are joints that are bolted or welded, you know, those connections can start to deteriorate. So obsolescence is another factor in all of this -- and risks.
NNAMDIAnd just yesterday, Chrysanthe, the Christian Science Monitor carried a report that a new study found that tropical storms don't peak in the tropics, as often as they did 30 years ago. Instead, more and more storms are reaching their maximum strength at higher latitudes in the North.
BROIKOSI don't think the -- I don't think many people are surprised by that, if you've been living, you know, on the East Coast the last couple of years.
NNAMDIThis is true.
BROIKOSYeah, I mean, we're seeing all kinds of changes. And I think -- climate-wise. And that's one of the reasons the, you know, exhibition seems so timely, is that we need to be doing things now to adapt to what's going on. You know, that's really one of the main drivers. It doesn't really -- I mean, we did a whole series of exhibitions on sustainability, for example, that did look at, you know, energy consumption and our carbon footprint.
BROIKOSWe wanted to go, honestly, a step further, and kind of take a bigger picture look and say exactly what we've been talking about. Where are we building? And then how are we building if we're going to be building in these places? I mean, in other words, does -- how sustainable is a building if it may not last through the next natural disaster? You know, we have to be asking, in a sense, a more fundamental question.
NNAMDIHere now is Helen, in Rehoboth, Del. Helen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
HELENYeah, hi, Kojo. I've found this to be a fascinating discussion. And I guess my question just follows on the comment that was just made. And that's just because we can doesn't mean we should. I mean, somebody said earlier -- one of your guests said earlier, you know, if we had to do it over again. Well, we've had the opportunity to do it over again, you know, along, you know, in one place, in many places on the Atlantic Coast where houses have been destroyed, and Katrina, where houses have been destroyed.
HELENBut, yet, you know, the federal flood program, which, you know, is no longer going to be subsidized by the government, but it has, until this point, been subsidized, and allowed people to just rebuild without, you know, with really minimal standards. So I guess I'd like to know, you know, it's more of a comment than a question, but if any of your listeners, you know, are involved, not just in finding out how to do it, but in really addressing the issue of should we do it and how…
HELEN…and should we prevent it.
NNAMDIIn the aftermath of disasters like the recent landslide outside of Seattle for instance, Roger, a lot of times people will say, "Well, they shouldn't have built there." And sort of shrug it off as an outlier or understood risk, even though it may not have been an abundantly evident one. What are the implications when we see locations that either we sense or know in advance that are not stable, or some that were presumed stable, but are now almost literally shifting under our feet?
LEWISWell, we're getting into really this broad area of public policy.
LEWISAnd, you know, we've seen this. I remember driving through Malibu on the Coastal Highway and wondering what, you know, seeing houses that would never be allowed in Maryland. You know, there on slopes that are so steep you wonder even how you get an automobile or a machine up there. I think overarching this whole discussion is the notion of public policy concerning these things. And -- versus private property rights. I should add that into the mix here.
LEWISAnd we are -- this is an ongoing debate in the United States, I think, is, you know, what is in the public interest? What should public policy be versus what should -- how far do we go in protecting private property rights and allowing -- saying to people, "Okay. We're not going to infringe on your rights, but by the way, we may not show up when your house catches fire because we can't get there."
BROIKOSYeah, I mean, I do think that the caller brought up an excellent point with the national flood insurance program. You know, we essentially were subsidizing building in the flood plain. So never mind mistakes, you know, that sometimes happen, we actually had public policy that was essentially, you know, putting people in harm's way. Luckily, part of that was reformed last year. There was a partial reform of the national flood insurance program.
BROIKOSAnd I think we are, you know, as a society, we are starting to rethink some of those issues. We are asking these questions. And I think that, you know, honestly, if there has been something good that has come from these past disasters, both manmade and natural, is that we are realizing that we need to engage at this level because it really does have broad implications. I mean more and more people are moving to these coastal areas, for example.
BROIKOSYou know, it's not just that the frequency of the incidences are growing, but more and more people are there. They are in harm's way. So we really have to be thinking about, you know, what we're doing.
NNAMDIHere is Thomas, in Chantilly, Va. Thomas, your turn.
THOMASYes. I have some experience of living in a house that definitely was not built for the conditions. Many years ago my father, an Air Force officer, was assigned to Anderson Air Force Base in Guam. And the officers lived in Quonset huts. And, of course, it was a typhoon area. There were three typhoons while we were there. And the typhoon winds, of course, would act on the curved roof of the Quonset hut, much like an airplane wing.
THOMASAnd at my -- as the winds picked up you could hear the clang, clang of the steel cables holding the Quonset hut to the ground snapping and the roof blowing off and ending up, you know, 100 yards away, along with all of the belongings. So after a couple of those they moved us to a concrete structures whenever a hurricane was threatened.
NNAMDIWell, I guess that speaks for itself, Roger.
LEWISYeah, it's just -- it's just solid physics, you know, aerodynamics. I mean the wind -- I think a lot of people probably have experienced that with umbrellas. I mean, we know what high winds can do and we just have to design structures that will either let the wind pass through them or resist the force of the wind.
NNAMDIDirk -- go ahead, please, Chrysanthe.
BROIKOSOh, I was going to say, we actually -- in one of -- in the air gallery we actually have constructed a safe room, a FEMA specified safe room that is essentially designed as -- they call it near absolute protection from tornadoes and hurricanes. And they really do work. They're incredible. So instead of, as Roger mentioned, you know, we know how to build to make things safe, but it can be cost prohibitive.
BROIKOSSo FEMA, you know, essentially said, "Okay. If we can't make the entire house safe in these high-risk areas, what about fortifying a smaller space, you know, that is -- that we can build safely or stronger?"
NNAMDIArnold, in McLean, Va. Thank you for waiting, Arnold. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ARNOLDHi, Kojo. I had a couple of personal experiences I thought I'd share with roofs blowing off or actually whole floors of condos blowing out. My mother lived in Pompano during the big hurricane and the entire floor of her condo was destroyed. The other is when we had the derecho here and my roof in Potomac, much of it came off. The third thing I wanted to mention, is a townhouse I lived in, which was made with FRT plywood and the kind of plastic pipes that decompose.
ARNOLDThe ceiling actually collapsed on the top floor. And the final question is how much will the ocean have to rise before D.C., the Chesapeake and New York are flooded? And that's my comment.
NNAMDII'm glad you raised that issue, because climate change has been in the news a lot recently with reports that hurricanes are hitting harder, as I mentioned, further north, and ominous sea level rise predictions. How much of a discussion are we hearing within the world of architecture about that issue, Roger?
LEWISWell, I think anyone who's been paying attention may have read just this last few days about the Antarctic glacial melt.
LEWISI mean, the scientists are not saying that it's a matter of if, it's a matter of when. I mean, they're talking about sea rising over the next several hundred years, of meters, many meters. Not a few feet or inches. Some of -- and my own feeling is that some of this is a combination of manmade global warming and natural cyclical warming that we know occurs over hundreds of thousands of years.
LEWISWe know this is coming. I mean, at least I believe most scientists -- this is not something I'm speculating on -- are pretty certain that this coming. And the -- so if you're -- I'm not going to worry necessarily about what's going to happen in 1,000 years, but I might be worried about what my great grandchildren have to face.
BROIKOSI mean it's happening already. There are communities in Alaska that are, I mean, the ground is essentially melting beneath them. The entire community is leaving. In Florida, they're already seeing the way the current sewers are built, that the water is not flowing into the ocean, it's already starting to back up.
BROIKOSI mean, people are -- that's why the show is, you know, like, we're already dealing with it now. I don't really care what you call it, but people are experiencing it. And they know something has changed. So it's really a matter of, as we said before, adapting and figuring out what we're going to do about it.
LEWISI think also, to answer Arnold's question, specifically, not many feet of rise is necessary to flood the New York subway system. And not many -- only a couple of feet will be devastating for much of the coastal areas of the Chesapeake Bay.
BROIKOSYeah, there are islands in the Chesapeake now that are -- have disappeared already.
NNAMDICorrect. We talked about those in earlier broadcasts. Kay, in Washington, D.C., wants to know what we're going to do about it in Washington, D.C. But speak for yourself, Kay. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KAYYeah, because I just wondered, since we've had earthquakes now on the East Coast, what that's going to do for, like, building codes. We've got all these glass buildings going up in D.C. And is there anything that we need to worry about or that we can do as homeowners or condo owners in the area? They say if you have one earthquake, you're going to have more.
NNAMDIBuilding codes in D.C., Roger?
LEWISWell, this is not as risk-filled a zone as California. But earthquakes -- some of the worst earthquakes ever on North America occurred in Missouri, as I recollect. And we could have a very bad earthquake. And there's no question there would be a lot of damage because we have not engineered many of our structures and our infrastructure to resist the kinds of forces they can generate.
LEWISThe probability is low, relatively low, compared to a place -- living on a seismic fault in California. I think you have to live life probabilistically. You've got to say to yourself, well, I'm probably not going to get hit by a meteor. We probably won't have a hurricane force winds in D.C. that are 170 miles an hour. We could have a tornado.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's about all the time we have. Except we got an email from Lindsey, who said that, "I wanted to share with your listeners that the D.C. Chapter of Architecture for Humanity has a resilience by design program that engages design professionals in the issues surrounding disaster management. More information can be found at our website, AFH-DC.org. Roger Lewis is an architect. He writes the "Shaping the City" column for the Washington Post. He's professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. Good to see you, Roger.
LEWISThank you very much.
NNAMDIChrysanthe Broikos is a curator at the National Building Museum. She oversaw the creation of the exhibit, "Dining (sic) for Disaster," on view now. Thank you for joining us.
BROIKOSThanks for having me.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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