Business of climate change

Introducing the new profession of extreme-weather architect

June 23, 2013
Obsession
Energy Shocks
June 23, 2013

Daniel Horn, a fresh New York architecture graduate, has launched a global competition around a tricky design question—what is the most aesthetic way to raise the elevation of an entire neighborhood block by eight to 10 feet?

Call it extreme weather architecture. Horn, a 23-year-old graduate of the New York Institute of Technology (more on him below), is part of a boom in design competitions and urban reconstruction initiatives built around climate change. A rash of storms, drought and fires in recent years has ignited this contemplation of a new school of design cutting across cities and shorelines, homes and commercial buildings.

The emerging class of architecture suggests the onset of a global design-and-construction industry worth tens of billions of dollars in the coming years. Places such as the Netherlands have had to build around environmental- and weather-related challenges for years. But to the degree that extreme-weather architecture and construction moves to the mainstream, it would become one of the biggest infrastructure businesses on the planet, straddling US, Europe, Asia and Latin America. The cost of one recent set of recommendations alone, by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, responding to the ravages of Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, is estimated at $20 billion. Studies of the spending to come around the world range well into the hundreds of billions of dollars.

Already, there are signs of a big trend. In addition to Bloomberg’s initiative, Shaun Donovan, the US secretary of housing and urban development, on June 20 unveiled a competition called Rebuild By Design, whose winning concept will be built using public and private funds. On June 13, the American Institute of Architects and three other groups announced the Designing Recovery competition, which seeks new housing designs for storm-prone areas.

Horn’s contest is called the 3C Competition (for Comprehensive Coastal Communities). At college, Horn had a mind to carve out a career in environmentally minded architecture—as his undergraduate thesis, Horn did a redesign of Newtown Creek, an industrial hub between Brooklyn and Queens near the East River.

But when Hurricane Sandy struck, the industrial businesses lining the creek were hit hard by flooding, and Horn re-conceived his thesis. Now he incorporated the risk of massive flooding. In order to absorb a Category 3 storm surge (the level that Sandy reached at its peak), Horn equipped the building around which his thesis centered with walls resembling a canal lock. Floodwaters entering the lock would be channeled into adjacent wetlands.

Horn thinks that the idea would scale up. There could be “an entire connected system of these ‘bulkhead buildings,’ as I call them, working together as a public space system and a storm water filter system which would also alleviate the area in a strong storm surge,” Horn told Quartz.

As it happened, Mayor Bloomberg’s group looked at Newtown as well in his $20 billion plan for redesigning the city.

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Bloomberg’s ideaOffice of the New York Mayor
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Horn’s Newtown modelCourtesy of Daniel M. Horn

Horn and a few college classmates also wondered why the New York area was generally unprepared for such weather. Extreme architecture clearly needed to move beyond conceptualized theses to a fundamental reshaping of the construction along the region’s shorelines.

But how? A single homeowner could elevate his own house on a high foundation, but that would do nothing to save the neighborhood, not to mention that it would look strange next to everything else around it. Horn’s group decided that a holistic approach was needed. That led to the competition.

The 3C Competition invites architects to select any community along the US northeast coast, and suggest a design for elevated homes in the context of the surrounding landscape and topography. The top three winners are to be announced in New York in October.

More than 210 teams from about 30 countries have entered so far, says Horn.

The field is young—Horn as yet has not found registered architects specializing in extreme weather work, but it is the talk of fresh graduates and architecture students. And it is they who will lead the way.

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