Designing for Disaster

We live in an age lashed by natural disasters. Katrina obviously looms in the American mind, but the Sichuan Earthquake and the Indian Ocean tsunami have all imprinted themselves on an entire generation, worldwide. What could we have done differently, before disaster struck, to prevent such loss? What could we have done better? Designers have been noodling on ways to meet the challenge. It's worth taking a step back and surveying the basic design strategies they've come up with. 

As New Scientist reports, recent hurricanes have proven the mettle of rounded buildings. Because of their shape, they create less drag than rectangular buildings and up to 30% less pressure on the outside walls.

deltec

In the case of these homes by Deltec, the spoke-like form of the floor and roof trusses distributes outside forces evenly throughout the structure: 

deltec floor

In 2005, this Deltec house managed to escape Hurricane Dennis nearly unscathed, while neighboring designs were blown to bits

deltec destruction

Meanwhile, seafront property poses another challenge: Waterfront property will probably always be valuable, even as global warming completely remakes coastlines. The solution: floating houses. Of course, the Dutch are experts at floating design, since so much of their country lies right at sea level. As New Scientist notes, Waterstudio specializes in floating houses:

floating home

They've even been commissioned to build a floating mosque in Dubai. (Read more about avant-garde mosque design here):

floating mosque

A little bit inland, where floating houses aren't an option, the solution of course is to loft the house. But that creates its own challenge: How do you design a lofted building that doesn't look terrible, that can blend in easily with neighboring homes? Dwell recently held a student contest to design concept homes for Louisianans, and several tackled the stilt problem head on. This design, by Thomas Colosino and David Lachin of LSU, solves it admirably: 

Billes Home Design Competition Lakeview House

The last solution is to build structures that are both more resilient and less permanent. It's also one of the oldest: For hundreds of years, the Japenese constructed entire cities whose buildings were made of just wood, bamboo, and paper. The purpose was two-fold: To create airy, easy to escape buildings less likely to topple and kill their inhabitants; and to make sure that even in the worst disasters, those buildings could be quickly replaced. Those strategies are being revived in Sichuan, in particular. 

Maybe the greatest design problem during the earthquake was concrete--which in China's quick-build, lightly regulated economy is frequently shoddy and prone to collapse. China, in a way, had no choice: Many regions have been deforested. Yan Xiao, a professor of engineering at USC has conceived of a way around that, by creating a new, plywood-like material made of bamboo, which is ubiquitous in China:

GluBam

[Image via Pop Sci]

"Glubam" can be used in resilient timber-style buildings--a rarity in China. Using Glubam, Xiao has built dozens of schoolhouses and homes across the area. 

Shigeru Ban, a legendary Japanese architect, is thinking along similar lines, but he's resuscitating the Japanese practice of architecture made from paper. Ban has experimented with paper for years, but the disasters have refocused attention on the practice, and he recently produced a school house made of paper: 

Shigeru Ban

Shigeru Ban

[Images via Zhu Tao

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10 Comments

  • Michael Mullins

    The idea of using paper or bamboo in structures is good for another reason - cost. Anti-disaster codes have unfortunately resulted in buildings in the developed world with systems so robustly engineered they're unaffordable. Allowing simplified buildings that are safe yet affordable without subsidies would revolutionize housing. Policy makers should take note.

  • Shevonne

    This is one of the most innovative articles that I have read in a long time. Architects and builders should definitely have this in their resource folder because this might prevent tragedy.