Just when you thought the challenges facing architects whose practice is residential design couldn’t get worse, along comes a confounding variable—the weather. This past winter, communities as far apart as Berlin, Germany, and Berlin, N.H., endured major disruptions. Even Chicago’s public schools had to close, something longtime residents of the Windy City could not recall. The culprit? Record cold and snow.
Last May, Nashville saw some of its worst floods in history, and earlier this year great swaths of Australia resembled inland seas, as normally meandering rivers burst their banks. What once were called 100-year events clearly seem to be happening with disturbing regularity across the globe. Seen from one perspective, more severe weather is an argument for the flexibility and convenience of working at home. After all, if you don’t have to go to an office, you avoid nightmarish commutes when the weather turns sour while the environment reaps the bonus of less pollution as the family car sits idle in the garage.
On second thought, what about the obvious fragility of our nation’s electrical grid, brought down again and again by the increasing ferocity of storms? Working at home is not an option if the power is out and you’re up on the roof feverishly shoveling snow to keep the roof from collapsing under the weight of a snowpack it wasn’t designed for.
If work at home is truly to replace or compete with the traditional office, bold action is called for on a number of fronts. For the nation’s utilities, bold action means an unprecedented investment in a reliable and efficient national power grid, equally secure from the acts of nature and terrorists. For government, bold action means collaborating with the design and construction industry to draft building codes that anticipate, rather than react to, natural disasters.
The contribution of architects is of a different sort. Confronting climate change represents a unique opportunity to expand an understanding of sustainable design to embrace the concept of survivability. It means designing structures that maintain critical life support in the face of what are no longer extraordinary weather conditions.
Will factoring survivability into the design of America’s homes cost more? Probably so. Yet, once lower insurance premiums and the efficiencies of reduced energy consumption kick in, homeowners are likely to see real savings.
Clark D. Manus, FAIA, 2011 President