Credit: Q4 Architects Inc.


Just days before the start of the 2013 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Warsaw, Poland, last November, the Philippines received its most intense typhoon yet, which left more than 6,000 people dead and hundreds of thousands homeless. It served as a reminder of global climate change and of the urgent work that lies ahead for architects, planners, and engineers if communities are to be more resilient.

To this end, the AIA, in collaboration with Architecture for Humanity, Dow Building Solutions, Make It Right, and the St. Bernard Project, launched the Designing Recovery Awards program last year to solicit disaster-responsive home designs that are energy efficient and affordable.

“How can we apply the many lessons we’ve learned about making buildings safer while retaining livability, aesthetics, and context within existing communities?” says jury chair Michael Willis, FAIA, a principal at San Francisco–based MWA Architects. Three firms received awards: Q4 Architects, with offices in Toronto and Calgary; New Orleans–based GOATstudio; and Toronto’s SUSTAINABLE.TO Architecture + Building.

Willis applauded the winning firms for designing homes that reflected their neighborhood contexts in New Orleans, New York, and Joplin, Mo., but also included interior “safe zones” for residents. “I just don’t think a perfectly safe cube is something we want to live in,” says Willis, “and the firms that the jury selected understood that idea.”

“In New Orleans, where the hazards of the environment and threats of climate change are in direct confrontation with a deeply ingrained cultural connection to place, architectural resilience is key to long-term viability,” says Colin VanWingen, a partner at GOATstudio, whose Shotgun[remix] proposal is on track for LEED Platinum status. A contemporary take on the historical shotgun layout, the proposal includes many modern touches: sliding polycarbonate privacy panels; vaulted interior spaces; an open floor plan; and a steel roof that turns and wraps the southern exterior wall for additional sun protection. The finished floor is 7 feet above the ground plane, and a perimeter rain garden will help filter storm runoff and alleviate on-site ponding.

“Post-Katrina and, more recently, post-Sandy, significant attention has been paid to spectacular urban- and regional-scale proposals to adapt and protect vulnerable coastlines,” says VanWingen. “However, rethinking smaller-scale projects like homes may have a more significant role to play in ensuring the long-term viability of these regions.”

Another winning proposal addresses resiliency concerns in the aftermath of Sandy. SUSTAINABLE.TO’s Resilient House for New York features a layout with living spaces oriented to the sun’s path across the sky, a highly insulated building enclosure, and a flood-proof foundation.

“No longer is it just good enough to build sustainably in order to reduce our impact; we must also build resiliently in order to withstand the Earth herself, as severe weather events become more common worldwide,” says SUSTAINABLE.TO’s Donald Peckover. “What we used to call a ‘100-year event’ is now beginning to happen multiple times in the same decade. Sustainability and resiliency should be proactive approaches, not reactive strategies, and integrated into all design at an early stage to ensure that buildings can withstand the elements without being overly reliant on any particular technology or system that is susceptible to failure.”

Q4 Architects’ CORE House takes a similarly proactive approach for tornado-prone Joplin. “The house is designed with integrated and passive systems so residents—ideally—do not need to rely on government disaster relief for shelter and infrastructural aid,” says Q4’s Elizabeth George, AIA. “Photovoltaic panels, water harvesting, water reuse, and UV filters allow residents to cook, clean, and maintain their lifestyle in the wake of a major disaster.”

With walls constructed with anchored, carbon-neutral concrete masonry units, a centrally located “safe house” in the design contains all the functions of home necessary for a family to live for an extended period of time until rebuilding is possible.

Like her colleagues, George sees resiliency as a way of thinking for architects in the coming decades, not just a design add-on. “Our culture is making conscious decisions to maintain or improve the physical and natural environment through sustainable design measures,” says George. “Using that same level of consciousness, we can design for disaster resilience to maintain the integrity of natural disaster-prone communities.”