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Fighting High Tides with High Design

A federal design program is using progressive design to strengthen communities devastated by Hurricane Sandy

By Nalina Moses, AIA

Is the best way to combat monstrous weather events like Hurricane Sandy with layered, local, low-lying interventions? The 10 final designs in HUD’s Rebuild by Design competition suggest so. These designs propose rebuilding affected regions with new networks of integrated environmental and architectural systems. These can include coastal reefs, offshore dunes, constructed wetlands, conduits, berms, water transportation, and new storm-resilient buildings—anything that mediates stormwater drainage, rather than setting up singular superstructures that try to shut the weather out. These systems will work together to protect communities during weather events, while also offering novel experiences of the sea.

In 2013, President Barack Obama's Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, under the auspices of HUD, launched Rebuild by Design. The open design competition calls for inventive solutions to reconstruct the coastal communities left devastated by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.

To administer the project, the task force is working in partnership with a number of established design and planning organizations: New York University's Institute for Public Knowledge, the Municipal Art Society of New York, the Regional Plan Association, and the Van Alen Institute. HUD also solicited input on jury composition from the AIA, and Chicago-based Jeanne Gang, FAIA, represented architects among a diverse jury of conservationists, urban planners, engineers, academics, and landscape architects.

An open-ended investigation

The Rebuild by Design brief, issued in June 2013, solicits proposals for design and planning projects that will build storm resiliency for Sandy-effected regions. Each project is to select one focus: coastal communities, high-density urban environments, ecological and waterbody networks, or unidentified and unexpected systems.

The requirements for each entry are left purposefully open-ended. The brief doesn't specify the shape of a project team, the particular sites for intervention, or the scope or scale of the interventions. Rather than determining where the area's greatest needs are and moving quickly to meet them, as in an emergency response effort, the competition seeks complex coordinated solutions that are deep-rooted, far-reaching, and long-lasting. The finest solutions will address dire infrastructure needs while also having the potential to strengthen community life and enrich an individual's experience of the shore and the sea.

David van der Leer, executive director of the Van Alen Institute, emphasizes the dual aims of the competition. “It’s exciting to come up with design proposals which are out there, but all the proposals are also implementable,” he says. As part of the competition's final phase, teams must establish project schedules and budgets, and identify the key community partnerships required for implementation. And since federal funds have already been allocated, one or more of the winning final projects will be constructed.

Diverse teams

In August 2013, from a total of 141 entrants, the task force selected 10 teams to develop their designs further. Then, in April 2014, these 10 teams each released a developed design. The teams have significant star power. Key members include the architecture firms OMA, BIG, Grimshaw, and LOT-EK; landscape architecture firms Hargreaves Associates and West 8; and planning offices Sasaki Associates and OLIN.

Most teams have members with special expertise in coastal planning and sustainability. Four teams include members based in the Netherlands, a country with rich traditions and technologies in water management. Another team is headed by unabridged Architecture (uA), a Bay St. Louis, Miss., firm with experience rebuilding structures damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

What’s most striking about the teams is how interdisciplinary they are. Each includes an architect, and many include landscape architects, urban planners, and structural, civil, and coastal engineers. But there are also economists, ecologists, marine biologists, graphic designers, and statisticians. One team even includes a seafood writer.

Diverse responses

Since each team has a different composition, each moved forward in a distinct direction. The team led by OMA developed a comprehensive plan for Hoboken, N.J., which enhances the city by introducing new systems of infrastructure that slow stormwater drainage, such as bioswales and green roofs, storing it with cisterns and constructed wetlands before eventually discharging it slowly.

Cooper, Robertson & Partners’ plan will identify and protect key commercial corridors in communities throughout the region. Their focus is to strengthen these centers economically and architecturally with structural and mechanical improvements so that they’ll remain vital during weather events, assisting the community and then providing a base for economic recovery.

The team that LOT-EK is working with selected the southern coast of Staten Island, an area damaged by Sandy that received little media coverage. Their proposal, the Tottenville Reach, will manage flooding in this coastal neighborhood with a layered approach. Its shore will be protected by a necklace of intertidal reef streets—engineered underwater concrete barriers that house unique marine ecosystems. This ring will enclose a substantial breakwater that promotes coastline recovery.

The adjacent shoreline landscape and streetscape will also be reimagined. New small structures called “water hubs” will promote water-related activities like kayaking, wildlife observation, and seaside dining. Their programs will be finalized with community input. “We have identified locations for small ground structures that are linked to the water, [which] will serve as portals to the water for the community,” says LOT-EK principal Ada Tolla, Intl. Assoc. AIA. Because findings by ecologists, a marine consultant, and a concrete manufacturer on the team set parameters for the design, the working process has been different than that of a typical architecture project. “These are long, complex solutions,” she says. “In comparison, deploying architecture is faster and simpler.”

The team led by unabridged Architecture (uA) began by examining storm vulnerability in one particular Sandy-affected neighborhood. Their project, Resilient Bridgeport Collective, strengthens the Connecticut city's underserved South End community with a web of separate interventions. “Our program will have a wide distribution, and will involve new buildings, adaptive reuse of existing buildings, and landscape repair projects,” says Allison Anderson, FAIA, uA principal.

One focus is the South End Resilience Center, a new facility created from two rehabilitated structures and one new building along the city's main corridor, Park Avenue. It will serve the community in both placid and severe weather. “The mixed-use center maintains operations in severe weather through on-site and renewable systems, provides an informal gathering place for the disparate population, and creates greater economic capacity for the vulnerable South End residents,” Anderson explains.

Another focus is Seaside Park, a 19th-century green space designed by Frederick Law Olmsted whose lawns have traditionally served as flood barriers. “There is tremendous value in this attitude toward the water,” Anderson says. “This kind of place, which is also a storm buffer, is a public amenity not just for recreation, but for resilience.” Anderson’s plan builds a berm inside the park to aid water retention, develops its north and east sides with raised sidewalks and storm-impervious underground utility lines, and engineers oyster beds along its edges that provide new economic opportunities and break waves.


Anderson notes that Rebuild by Design also has the power to reclaim waterfronts for public use. Thinking specifically about the history of Bridgeport, she says, “Industrial cities occupied the waterfront for different reasons than we desire today, so it seems they turned their backs to the water with cargo and storage and fuel. Now that we wish to use that waterfront for public access, housing, and recreation, it needs restoration.”

Engineers and planners have traditionally taken the leading role in regional- and community-scaled rebuilding projects like these. But Rebuild by Design gives architects a vital role to play. As they are included from the earliest, broadest stages of project planning, architects can enrich new infrastructure elements, such as storm walls and flood plains, with resonant forms and social programs. Van der Leer observes that within the competition’s large multidisciplinary teams, “architects can help you see everyday life in a very different way. They have a capacity to dream, and to create powerful new images.”

This imaginative power can be crucial to developing projects that are intricately tied to community life—and intricately tied to the fundamental, deeply held, and often unspoken desire this competition addresses: to be close to the water, no matter how vulnerable the position. The most successful entries will harness the collective expertise and will of their teams and apply it toward practical plans that most securely reunite communities with their shorelines.

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Bird’s-eye view of unabridged Architecture’s plan for Seaside Park in Bridgeport, Conn. All images courtesy of WB unabridged w/Yale ARCADIS.

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A perspective view of the South End Resilience Center in Bridgeport.

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The Atlantic coast at Bridgeport.

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