Over the weekend, the city of Venice tested its seven billion dollar flood protection system, known as the Moses project, for the first time. For centuries, Venice has been a center of art and culture in Italy, but it’s also been a city at the mercy of the waters, thanks to its placement on the Mediterranean and the system of locks and canals that runs through it. While these water features are part of what makes the city so charming, they’re also what may, in the end, doom it.
With sea levels rising worldwide, Venice has been one among several cities facing an unenviable situation as it becomes more prone to flooding each year. Severe storms have devastated coastal cities around the world, destroying houses, ruining priceless historical sites, disrupting residents, and causing ripples through commerce and trade. One option is to move higher inland, but another is to think about how to design for flood resilience, a passion of architecture students like Daniel Horn.
Historically, a variety of tactics have been used to deal with being at, close to or even below sea level. There are the dikes of Holland, the thoughtfully-arranged canals and locks of many port cities, and the carefully stilted homes of places like Indonesia. Horn wants to see a more modern approach used to bring greater protection from severe weather around the world, noting that climate change is increasing the risk of flooding and severe water damage.
Of course, the best flood protection is found by moving inland, and some cities are opposed to designing for flood resilience. They’d rather see communities working with officials on buyout programs to allow cities to buy homes close to the water and relocate residents elsewhere. However, waterfront property sells at a premium, and many residents are reluctant and uninterested in moving to other locales. Thus, architects, developers, and designers need to think about how to make homes near water safer.
Horn notes several potential problems in low-lying communities, drawing upon lessons learned from Sandy. The first and most obvious is the issue of low-lying homes set close to the ground, where flooding can quickly become overwhelming. Any effective flood-resilient architecture needs to get homes up, but must do so in a secure way so they can withstand buffeting wind and weather. That includes installing roofing that can resist high winds, hail, and flying objects.
There’s also the issue of homes set too close together, a common problem in low-income communities and historic communities. As seen in Breezy Point, where a fire tore through scores of homes in Sandy’s wake, if houses are too close to each other, fire can leap easily between them, spreading devastation after a severe homes. Homes that might survive due to solid construction and elevated design can still be vulnerable to fire, unless they’re spaced adequately.
Proper foundation sealing is also critical. Elevating houses (and ensuring the space below is only used for parking and storage, not habitation) involves retrofitting foundations to make them strong and stable. They also, however, must be sealed in order to keep floodwaters out. This requires some extra steps during building and can add to the total cost of the structure. In coastal cities like San Diego, concrete contractors will be put in the position of learning, developing, and using new technologies to protect coastal homes.
He also explains that so-called “soft” or green infrastructure needs to be a critical part of design too. This includes barrier islands, marshes, plantings to reduce erosion, and other tactics in the natural environment. They can help reduce and control flooding, protecting the homes living in their shelter. Efforts to build, rebuild, or maintain natural protections like barrier islands don’t just preserve homes, of course: They also provide habitat for animals and offer other environmental benefits.
We may be seeing radical changes worldwide in terms of how architecture looks and which materials are used in the creation of buildings, such as flood-resistant materials for waterfront homes. These measures must also include thought to protections for low-income communities who may not have the resources of those in wealthier areas when it comes to making their homes safe for the next flood, and the next, and the one after that.
Photo: Erik Larson, Flickr.com.