Land Hurricanes, Resilient Design, And Other Stuff To Think About

Doesn’t seem like we can catch a break in 2020. This thread was continued with a destructive storm– called a derecho, from Spanish for ‘straight’, from the direction of the weather pattern- ripped across the Midwest this week. The land hurricane wrought destruction across a Midwestern landscape that has historically struggled with tornadoes, floods, and general weather extremes. Photos from my alma mater showed buildings new and old, smooshed by the wrath of nature. A quarter million people– equivalent to nearly a double-digit percentage of the population of the state of Iowa- are without power. While the storm has gotten some play in the national media, it is, by and large, “one of those things that happens in the flyover states.” So, people are more up in arms instead about Birtherism “Too,” or whatever other current scandal the White House is trying to rationalize its role in. Obviously, The Handbuilt City always wants a chance to write about a story at the intersection of climate change, construction and design, and Midwesternism!

SOLUTIONS: STORM-RESISTANT ARCHITECTURE

In the realm of building maintenance, I always like to say that “the House always wins,” with the writ-large house referring to the House that is Mother Nature. Water, for example, will always find a way. So, it’s important to understand that it’s impossible to build a structure that is entirely something-proof. It is, however, possible to ensure that new construction is more resilient

Panelized and modular construction units often win beaucoup points for long-term resilience. It’s true that many of these solutions rely on using plastic, which isn’t great, but it is what it is. Insulated concrete forms, or ICF’s, are sort of like styrofoam Lego blocks with a steel web that are filled with concrete after they are installed on site. They are reportedly fairly indestructible. But styrofoam is more permanent than it is durable for an exterior building material, so some other measures must be taken to protect the exterior. Both concrete and styrofoam have high carbon footprint and global warming potential, so this should be weighed against other design factors.

Hardie Board™, a fibrous cement cladding product, is very durable. It’s also a pain in the ass to work with for various reasons. Without diving too deep down the engineering rabbit hole, roofs become far more wind resistant when the load can be distributed across more axes. In other words, a typical ‘^’-shaped hip roof is going to be the least wind-resistant, whereas a four-sided, six-sided, or eight-sided (what!?) roof will fare far better. Many asphalt shingles are at least nominally rated for high winds.

So, there are some tradeoffs to be considered in any project. But any time you build a resilient and well-insulated building, it’s a win for climate. It’s also a win for operational costs (especially when you can bring your utility bill to zero) and for storm resistance. Longevity translates to savings for everyone.

SOLUTIONS: RESILIENT UTILITY INFRASTRUCTURE

Sticking electrical wires on top of big wooden sticks is something we’ve been doing for nearly two centuries. It’s time to move past this. The idea that an electrically conductive thing shouldn’t be stuck fifty feet up in the air where it can attract lightning shouldn’t be shocking, no pun intended. Critics say it’s too expensive without noting the massive costs of widespread outages and repairs after storms. Also, it’s worth noting that intercity transmission lines can be buried at far lower expense than in cities. This could be especially valuable in rural areas subjected to worse storms and where there are fewer road crossings or crazy infrastructure to negotiate. Increasing the rate of power generation that occurs locally means fewer transmission lines need to be built. In turn, this means that fewer transmission lines can be damaged in storms. 

A prairie restoration in the floodplain of the Upper Iowa River outside Decorah. Elimination of wetlands and native tallgrasses, which have strong and resilient root systems, has increased extreme flooding in the Upper Mississippi country over the past century. Small restoration projects like this are common, but need to be scaled for them to be effective at a systemwide level.
PARTNERSHIP, RATHER THAN ADVERSARIAL RELATIONSHIP, WITH NATURE

Nature has been around longer than strip malls and electricity, so, it stands to reason that it does some things quite well. We might consider this when planning cities and managing agricultural land and open space. Afforestation, that is, the planting of trees where there weren’t none before, is one approach. This was a hallmark of the Great Plains Shelterbelt implemented in the 1930’s to mitigate the Dust Bowl. Unfortunately, the strategies implemented since that time have been few and far between. The USDA does advocate for the planting of windbreaks. But it’s not exactly something that factors prominently in any sort of regionwide or nationwide strategies. Wetland restoration is a solution that could work for flood mitigation. Both absorb CO2.

As I wrote last fall, climate change won’t stop for beleaguered public budgets. I likened it to armed robbery with impunity:

Let’s say a red state government knows that at some point within a period of a few months every year, a masked man will enter the state capitol building, parade into the governor’s office, and demand a check for anywhere from a few hundred million dollars to as much as a hundred billion. In addition to his uncanny ability to evade security guards and metal detectors, this mysterious figure also has the ability to convince the governor to cut a check every time. Every year, the masked man points out that the governor could avoid paying most of this quizzical ransom by investing a few billion dollars each year in infrastructure improvements, climate change mitigation efforts, and wetland restoration.

“I can’t spend money on that!” the dyed-in-the-wool Republican protests. “Anthropogenic climate change is a liberal lie!”

“Fine,” the stranger retorts, “I guess I’ll see you next year.”

CONCLUSION

Retrofitting buildings is expensive. Building new, storm-resistant buildings is expensive, too. What else is expensive? Billions upon billions in repairs, insurance claims, and lost productivity. Cheaper than either of these are using systems nature already developed over billions of years of evolution and integrating them in with our practices of land management, agriculture, and city planning. Fortunate that we don’t have to rely on just one of these solutions and can instead combine a balance of multiple.

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Nat M. Zorach, AICP is a city planner, community development professional, and MBA candidate at American University's Kogod School of Business, based in Detroit.

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