How architects can help communities recover from disasters (and save millions of dollars)

Safety assessments - Building post-Sandy

An architect assesses a building in Rhode Island in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Three trained assessors share how architects can use their skills to evaluate homes and businesses in the aftermath of a disaster

When Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August of 2005, it quickly became a force unparalleled in the history of modern disasters. Roughly 850,000 homes were destroyed or damaged, leaving countless residents with nowhere to go.

At the time, J. Scott Eddy, AIA, was working on a VA hospital renovation project on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. When he and his team went to evaluate the existing structure in the hurricane’s aftermath, they found a building that was “blown off the slab.”

“The devastation stretched on and on,” Eddy says. “My wife asked me what it looked like. I told her, ‘The same as on TV, but it goes for 90 miles.’”

Ann Somers, AIA, was president of AIA Mississippi in 2005. After Katrina, AIA National arrived to provide damage assessment training and resources. These goodwill assessments—done at the behest of the homeowner or small business owner—took roughly two hours, and the number of trained architects involved were low. Furthermore, Mississippi did not, and does not, have a Good Samaritan law, meaning the governor had to issue an executive order to provide liability protection for volunteering architects.

“Katrina was not like any of the other disasters,” Somers says. “The existing response efforts did not work when it came to this storm. There was a learning curve.”

Eddy and Somers are both Mississippi-based; Eddy is president of Barlow Eddy Jenkins, P.A., while Somers is principal at Cooke Douglass Farr Lemons. This wasn’t either of their first contact with natural disasters, and neither one wanted to shirk his or her duties when it came to future disaster assistance and response. As such, they got involved with what has become AIA’s Safety Assessment Program, not only taking the officially recognized safety assessment course but teaching others to assess as well.

What it means to assess

The goal of building safety assessments is to provide as much clarity as possible. It can take months for local building officials to visit every home or small-scale office impacted in a disaster; a trained architect, however, can visit a structure and—in 30 minutes—declare it safe to inhabit, not safe to inhabit, or safe enough for residents to return and collect their belongings.

“If we can keep people in their homes and businesses after a disaster, that’s the first step in the rebuilding process,” Eddy says. “If you stay, you’ll start cleaning up or moving debris. If we can keep your business open, the economy picks back up. Either way, it helps start moving back toward normal.”

Michael Lingerfelt, FAIA, is the president at Lingerfelt International and trained both Eddy and Somers in building safety assessments. “I’ve trained 1,882 architects and engineers, in total, from all over,” he says, before reading off over a dozen states and territories where concerned design professionals have gathered under his tutelage to help start communities on the path to recovery.

“It’s really valuable to get out in the field and see how a building came apart in a storm. It helps you figure out how to put it back together, or how to design it better next time.” - Ann Somers, AIA

In late 2017, he traveled to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria to train 73 architects and engineers. He saw firsthand how devastated the island was, more than ever reinforcing the need for architects to respond. “I was on the ground after Katrina,” he says. “I’ve traveled to third-world countries. I thought I was prepared. I was not.”

AIA's official course for architects looking to get involved with post-disaster assessments is adopted and adapted from the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) Safety Assessment Program (SAP). This program is accepted and taught nationwide, providing architects with similar training that they can then apply in their own settings. The goal is to create pockets of similarly equipped assessors across the nation; then, when a disaster strikes a state and its own architects are struggling in the aftermath, neighboring architects can come in and help with assessments of their own.

“When we finish with the training,” Somers says, “we tell all the architects in the class, ‘Now you know us; when there’s another disaster in Mississippi, we expect you to be there.’”

Sharing the cost

These building safety assessments are free to the public; the participating architects provide their time, pro bono, to assist those in need. But what happens when local and state officials raise an eyebrow?

“We’ve gotten a lot of pushback,” Eddy says. “A state legislator in Mississippi once told me, ‘What do we owe you? There’s no such thing as a free lunch.’ But there’s no catch.”

When it comes to the financial impact of the assessments, the only question that should be asked is, “How much is this going to save my taxpayers?” Lingerfelt notes that, during the 2011 tornadoes in Alabama, he trained architects who went on to voluntarily assess over 7,000 buildings in the area.

“In a disaster of that magnitude,” he says, “FEMA picks up 75 percent of the tab and the local government picks up 25 percent. So when the local government has to mobilize police, the fire department, contractors, or debris removal, they’re on the hook for a quarter of that. It was accounted that Alabama architects provided $300,000 worth of services; that’s all money the taxpayers didn’t have to come up with.”

“If we can keep people in their homes and businesses after a disaster, that’s the first step in the rebuilding process.” - J. Scott Eddy, AIA

“That bit of information,” he adds, “usually gets someone’s attention.”

Beyond money, building safety assessments are a way to reinforce an architect’s value within the community. “Surveys show that architects are held in high esteem,” Eddy says, “but there’s also the perception that we’re rich and you have to be a millionaire to afford one of us. I look at this program as a way to reach out and say, ‘You’ve been through a lot; we’re here representing architects as a whole, and we want to help.’”

Use your skillset

Some architects may be hesitant to get involved in disaster response, but Eddy, Lingerfelt, and Somers—who all work in different specialties—emphasize that performing building safety assessments isn’t daunting; in fact, they make use of an architect’s existing skillset.

“I tell people at my training sessions, ‘I don’t know how much you’re going to learn that’s new,’” Eddy says. “What I hope is that they’ll learn how to apply knowledge they already have, within the guidelines of this program.”

“I have been blessed to be a Disney architect for most of my career,” Lingerfelt says, “and I feel like it is my moral responsibility to give back to society via my skills and talents.”

In fact, in Canon II: Obligations to the Public, the AIA Code of Ethics states, “Members should render public interest professional services, including pro bono services … rendered after disasters or in other emergencies.” So not only are these services part of being a principled architect, they’re a critical part of being an AIA member and serving the foundational mission of the profession.

“We’ve all been trained to understand how structural forces work,” Somers says. “We look at buildings and understand what is failing, and the magnitude of that failure. It’s not hard to do; it’s your basic training put to use.”

“It’s really valuable to get out in the field,” she adds, “and see how a building came apart in a storm. It helps you figure out how to put it back together, or how to design it better next time.”

To get involved or learn more, visit AIA’s Safety Assessment Program homepage. For more on disaster assistance, learn about AIA’s Disaster Assistance Program.

Steve Cimino is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers architecture, sustainability, and health.

Image credits

Safety assessments - Building post-Sandy

RI Architects and Engineers Emergency Response Task Force 7

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