Are Architects Useful After Natural Disasters?
November 16, 2012
A house in Staten Island that was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. All photos © Jenna M. McKnight
Can architects put their services to use in the days and weeks following a natural disaster? We look at the Sandy-ravaged New York region as a case study.
By C. J. Hughes
More than two weeks ago, on October 29, Hurricane Sandy barreled ashore in the New York region, destroying what could end up being thousands of homes. But architects eager to help rebuild have little to do, at least when it comes to anything requiring their professional skills.
At some point, designers who can determine a home’s structural damage will be needed, according to organizers of the relief operations in hard-hit coastal areas. But for now, these areas need volunteers who can clear debris, deliver food, and help people up and down darkened stairs.
“There are still boats in people’s living rooms. There are still photo albums that belong to grandmothers that need to be salvaged. And this phase isn’t going away anytime soon,” says Thomas Thomas, a founder of Staten Island Strong, a relief group that has brought about 500 volunteers each weekend since the storm hit Staten Island’s South Shore. Continue.
Thomas, who normally works on fashion shows and other events, hasn’t kept track of how many architects are in his crews, though he plans to create a database of members’ occupations soon. However, he suggests that any architects interested in rebuilding register with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to get properly ID’ed, so as to streamline the rebuilding process when it starts.
“I can’t have just anyone walking in with a sledgehammer and taking out a load-bearing wall,” he says. FEMA didn’t return a call for comment.
A NYC architect helps gut a house in Staten Island last week.
John Cary, a design consultant who cofounded the nonprofit Public Architecture and runs the site Public Interest Design, agrees. (Cary also is a juror for the Architizer A+ Awards.) “There is a real need for people on the ground right now, and there will be for months,” says Cary, who has spent two weekends with Staten Island Strong stripping down houses to their studs to remove soggy dry wall and protect against mold.
One potential hitch: Architects aren’t legally allowed to perform damage assessments as volunteers; New York doesn’t currently have any “good Samaritan” laws to protect them against any future lawsuits, like many states do.
But Cary, who isn’t a licensed architect, hopes designers still pitch in with related tasks. “I would hate to think architects are sitting around because of lack of Good Sam laws,” he says.
A member of the U.S. Air Force hands out FEMA paperwork to Staten Island residents.
In addition to Staten Island Strong, relief efforts are being coordinated by AIA New York, which organized a fundraiser and panel, “Designing the City after Superstorm Sandy,” for November 15 (suggested donation was $10). The group is also offering teams of architects to provide safety assessments, as well as a list of temporary office space for displaced businesses.
And Architecture for Humanity (AFH), the volunteer relief organization (cofounder Cameron Sinclair is an A+ Awards juror), is collecting donations, while partnering with MTV to rebuild the damaged New Jersey town of Seaside Heights, the setting for its Jersey Shore program.
In addition, the group, which has 400 members in New York, is offering design help to nonprofits and landlords of rental properties in low-income neighborhoods. So far, no requests have been made as the clean-up trudges on, says Audrey Galo, who’s coordinating the Sandy response.
AFH also works with a handful of AIA national chapters, including New York’s, to train architects for disaster relief, as part of its few-months-old Disaster Resiliency and Recovery Program. Just this week, a $2,000 grant from AFH underwrote a class for New York designers about what to do in the aftermath of storms, to “get the conversation started,” Galo says.
The group will ultimately do “neighborhood assessments”—canvassing storm-wracked neighborhoods to take photos and ask questions—but it’s too soon for those now, Galo adds. Historically, the organization has been focused on long-term rebuilding efforts rather than acting as a first responder.
Signage on a house in Staten Island.
Though their roles may be limited, architects nevertheless feel essential to the relief efforts. Eric Moed, a Brooklyn designer, has spent most days since the storm delivering care packages to elderly residents of Coney Island high-rises.
Moed, who graduated with an architecture degree from the Pratt Institute last spring, explains that his training is hard to ignore. He couldn’t help but notice that it was a flawed decision to put utilities in the basement of 3030 Surf Avenue, a housing project on the beach that flooded.
But for now, his expertise is probably superfluous. “I would tell any architect out there to put on some boots, grab a broom, come here, and be ready to walk up stairs,” he says. “We should table the golden-ratio discussions for another three to four months.”
C.J. Hughes is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Architectural Record, The Real Deal, and other publications.
Debris in Staten Island.
A NYC architects stands outside a Staten Island house he helped gut last weekend.
The gutted house.
Jenna M. McKnight, Archtizer’s editor in chief, takes a quick break.
A broken pedestrian signal in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Furnishings on the streets of Red Hook, which suffered extensive flooding.
The remnants of gutted houses in Red Hook.