Last week, the American Institute of Architects Foundation (AIAF) announced the addition of three members to its National Resilience Initiative (NRI) of college- and university-based design studios to help local and regional communities better respond to natural and man-made disasters. The additions bring the NRI’s studio count to six and with a national footprint. We checked in with AIAF executive director Sherry-Lea Bloodworth Botop to talk about what’s next for the studios.
The NRI additions come from the University of Minnesota, California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif., and Hampton University, in Virginia. Why were these programs selected?
We put out a request for participation through the Association of the Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) to three additional regions—the West Coast/Rockies, mid-Atlantic, and upper-Midwest—to complete the core NRI studio network. We already had the Gulf Coast, the lower Midwest, and the Northeast studios in place. These six regions overlay with the 10 regions [deemed to be at-risk for natural and man-made disasters by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)].
What else do the new studios bring to the table?
We were interested in identifying studios that had extensive backgrounds in resilience, which we categorize under social, disaster, and chronic. We also were looking for cross-disciplinary schools, or schools that partner and work together with their university's engineering, landscape architecture, and planning departments. The judges also looked for their ability to function outside of the school and in their community.
Can you explain more about the different types of resilient-design issues—social, disaster, and chronic—that the studios are exploring?
The social aspect of resilience is an important part of determining how quickly and how well communities can bounce forward [following a disaster], and so the studios are designing ways for communities to come together, building that social capital. The chronic side of things, I think of places like Detroit. It’s more of a slow-moving disaster, if you will. Another example of a chronic issue is in Arkansas. [The studio there has] been working to design food systems to help address food insecurity.
How are students integrated into the workflow?
It depends on the studio. In Arkansas and the Gulf Coast, the students can earn credit hours by working with the studio through hands-on, participatory learning. The AIA’s and ACSA’s role is to look at the purpose of a resilience curriculum that can be shared across the universities. The ultimate goal is to have all the universities connected and learning from each other.
What does all this look like at the studio level?
One of the reasons we started this program is because we wanted to make it easier for FEMA and HUD, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and others that work in resilience or disaster recovery to identify solutions and to coordinate their efforts. After hurricanes Irene and Sandy, we observed that some of the initiatives that had been implemented on the Gulf Coast eight years prior were being studied again [for use in those regions]. We wanted a way to coordinate the efforts on a national scale and then connect them to federal agencies at the regional level. One of the things that we’re working on now is connecting the studios to the FEMA and HUD regional administrators. It doesn’t mean that their only solutions are through the studios, but it gives them a point of entry to identify efforts that they can plug into when it makes sense.
Can you share an example?
Tornado shelters are a great example. In Arkansas, the studio has been designing and redesigning tornado shelters. FEMA is excited about that and is working with that studio to do further research. Some early shelters that were designed and implemented, they found, had the risk of being sucked out of the ground and so the studio had been re-designing them so that didn’t happen, and that’s something FEMA is very interested in. Back to the social piece, they’re also working on ways to ensure that communities know where to go [to access a tornado shelter]. How do we design signage to make it easy? How long does it take people that don’t have cars to get to these shelters? All of these issues are design problems that have design solutions and are the types of things that can be worked on with federal agencies.
So there’s coordination among the disaster, social, and chronic response initiatives?
All of them impact each other. All aspects of disaster should be scanned at once and layered. It’s definitely a multipronged approach.
How are the studios collaborating?
That’s already started. We convened the first three studios at AIA headquarters this past summer for a two-day knowledge-sharing workshop and had federal agencies there to talk about some of the things they’re struggling with. We have regular email group communication and a monthly call. We’ve also been able to filter invitations to the universities from groups such as the 100 Resilient Cities program, and identify a director to represent the network and bring that information back. The beauty of having architects at the table as subject-matter experts for these national initiatives, and not to say that they didn’t understand the value of architects before, is that we are seeing more engagement with architects at the front end.
Is there a danger in resilience becoming a buzzword?
Yes. There is a danger in anything becoming a buzzword, which is why we’re really trying to focus on the issues more than that word “resilience.” When you say you’re trying to design solutions to address food insecurity for children in Arkansas, which has one of the highest rates in the nation of food insecurity for children, people understand that, and then we don’t have to use the word resilience. We can just talk about the issues. The public is very quick to shut down when you start using buzzwords. It’s important to identify the issues and work with communities to address them by using design as the catalyst.
What are some solutions coming out of the studios that you’re particularly excited about?
There have been so many. Maybe it’s because I’m a native of the Gulf Coast, but I appreciate the efforts of looking at land use and living with water, and working with landscape architects to mitigate damage and to restore natural habitats there. That studio’s architects and the landscape architects have done a great deal to reinvigorate and rebuild the marshland and the wetlands down there. They’ve even integrated an educational program with children in elementary schools, so as they’re engaging the program they’re building future environmentalists, if you will, out of the effort. They’re also looking at elevations of structures and wind velocity, wind-resistant roof systems, things like that, but I think at the core of it is the community-engagement piece that excites me. Those kind of grassroots efforts are what I really appreciate about these studios.
There’s one particular example in Biloxi, Miss., called the Bayou Auguste Restoration project, which is a partnership with the city, the housing authority, the public school district, the Land Trust for the Mississippi Coastal Plain, volunteer labor, and grant funds. I’ve watched it grow and it’s exciting to see the natural habitat beginning to be restored because I was there when it was wiped out and none of these things were coming back.
We’re looking ahead at bringing all of the directors together again late this summer in Washington, D.C., with federal agencies and other stakeholders. It will be more of a working session to look at issues, design solutions, and to expand connections.
This story has been updated.