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Designing for Flood Resilience


Q. Your thesis, Amphibious Brisbane, is about design responses to flooding. Is the flood resilience space becoming more established? Or are local and international flood resilient designs still speculative and experimental in nature?

At the architectural level, most flood resilient designs still tend to be one-offs, beyond the houses you see raised on stilts in some coastal areas, like in the United States. These houses are problematic in their own right due to access issues, public amenity and affordability.

Countries like the Netherlands are world leaders in a more holistic approach. They focus on a larger urban/landscape scale and utilise design strategies that accommodate the full water cycle. They also have progressive policies that allow and facilitate new development.

Q. When we talk about flood resilience, we’re talking about investing in several design approaches including floating architecture, property level barriers, elevation, as well as wet-proof materials and detail strategies. Is there anything else to it?

At an architectural level, there have also been developments in modular housing and instances where sections of a house that are particularly expensive( for example kitchens) are moved upstairs to stay dry.

I think it’s important to state that flood resilient housing is only one part of the answer when considering climate change adaptation. We need to think at the scale of the catchment and water cycles, so suburbs, cities, farms and forests also need to be factored into our response.

Q. Let’s talk affordability. Flood resilient homes are expensive. This directly impacts insurance premiums, which are partly based on the value of the house. Not many people can afford to pay mortgages on such properties, which drastically narrows the target market to an affluent clientele living in flood vulnerable areas.

Would you say that’s an accurate assessment of the market?

In terms of insurance, in some contexts, it’s quite the opposite. One of my flood-resilient case studies in Australia recently received an over 40% reduction on their insurance premium, because they were able to demonstrate that their material risk to flooding was less.

If it floods, less of the house will need to be repaired.

What makes flood resilient homes expensive has more to do with policies that restrict designs to a particular solution, commonly elevation, which is expensive. These policies can also restrict what you can do in areas prone to floods. In Brisbane, after the 2011 floods, many people lost the ability to have bedrooms and kitchens on the ground floor, which means they effectively lost half of their usable house. This is very difficult if you already have a mortgage.

In other contexts, like the United States, where there is a national flood insurance program, the scenario is very different. FEMA is quite particular about what can and can’t be done in flood risk zones to qualify for insurance, which means that there is little innovation and exploration of more affordable solutions.

It’s worth stating that most people who live in flood risk areas belong to less affluent communities in the United States, in Australia and other parts of the world. Think of New Orleans.

We need to have a conversation with designers, developers and policy makers on how to adapt our cities for all, not just the rich.

Q. If flood resilient designs are to counteract climate catastrophe and overpopulation, these solutions would need to be available to everyone. Could such a design program be socialised?

Housing is only one part of the built environment of our cities, so inevitably flood resilient design needs to incorporate infrastructure, landscape and agricultural strategies. The term Blue/Green infrastructure is used a lot, which normally refers to more natural solutions to climate change.

Flood resilient designs will become more of a necessity in the future, but it is a field borne out of a need to mitigate and adapt rather than prevent climate change.

Q. What are the current challenges confronting designers working towards resilience?

Policy and process is a barrier, as I mentioned earlier. In some areas there is also a lack of data which makes it more difficult to make a convincing argument for a particular strategy.

Cost is another issue. Generally, most governments will pour 90% of funding towards resilience and mitigation after a big disaster. This is the wrong way round as you get much more bang for your buck if you invest in resilience ahead of time and avoid expensive reactive responses to climate change.

Q. Currently 1 in 6 homes in the UK are at risk of flooding – a number that is expected to double by 2050. It is estimated that flooding causes an average of £1.4 billion in damages each year to businesses and households.

What happens at 2’C? Are Architects preparing for life at 2'C?

Architects generally care a lot about their cities and communities but I think it is difficult for most people to even understand what their town will look like at 2’C.

However, architects are well placed to advocate for the importance of researching and preparing for life at 2’C, in order to protect and enhance our communities.

Q. Let’s talk about the IPCC report. The report said that global net emissions of carbon dioxide would need to fall by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach "net zero" around 2050 in order to keep the warming around 1.5’C.

Lowering emissions to this degree, while technically possible, would require widespread changes in energy, industry, buildings, transportation and cities.

Can resilience design planning help?

Building emissions from construction and energy use are among the world’s biggest sources of carbon emissions.

While I wouldn’t necessarily call it resilient design, making our buildings greener at the design stage (less embodied energy and less waste) and living sustainably (less water and energy use) is extremely important.

In New York City, most buildings will need to be retrofitted to reduce emissions by 60% by 2030. That’s a big challenge!

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