Maggie Chiang

As communities across the United States prepared for another hurricane season, we talked with three members of AIA’s Resilience and Adaptation Advisory Group on their resilience work in three key areas of the country. Amid a growing national conversation about how both sea-level rise and extreme weather events will impact our built environment over the next decade and beyond, the expertise of leaders like the three we spoke to will place architects and their skill set more squarely in the spotlight.

San Francisco Bay Area

Tian Feng, FAIA, has dedicated thousands of hours to planning for the impacts of sea-level rise—but he’ll be the first to tell you that he can’t do it alone.

Feng is the district architect of San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) District and a leader on climate resilience in the Bay Area. He uses two dimensions to explain the impacts of sea-level rise adaptation: lateral and vertical. Integrating the two, he says, can be a challenge.

“Our work at BART is more focused on the vertical dimension. The vertical dimension is specific,” he says. “[The asset] is an apartment building, or a transit system like us. There’s a set of unique vulnerabilities and, based on that, we develop strategies for adaptation. If an earthquake happens, it’s challenging, but it’s easier.”

BART has hardened its assets with specific design performance against earthquakes, but sea-level rise, Feng explains, is different. “Your asset is one of millions of assets that will be impacted by coastal, regional flooding,” he says. “So, your performance can be defined at a certain level, and then beyond that, there’s a collective decision.”

Feng has been working for BART for the last two decades. In addition to his day job, he is currently a member of AIA’s Adaptation and Resilience Advisory Group, and he also serves on the Research Advisory Committee of the Bay Area Resilient by Design Challenge—all ways in which he is helping to facilitate the Bay Area’s lateral approach.

“The lateral dimension is wide, inter-agency, inter-ownership. Half our asset is below-grade, underground,” he says. “Most of the high-rise [buildings] are well above grade.” Protecting a high-rise building is very different from protecting a below-grade transit system, for obvious reasons.

BART has never experienced service delays due to flooding—at least, not yet. “We have not suffered the impact of [a storm like Hurricane] Sandy for now,” Feng says. “But, in coming decades, if we are encountering the same effect as Sandy, what are the adaptation strategies that we can evolve from what we have now? So [that] by the time the effect of a storm like Sandy comes in, we are prepared.” Those who would be most impacted by an interruption of BART service due to a major flooding event, Feng points out, are the Bay Area’s most vulnerable communities—and they are the ones who will most benefit from adaptation efforts.

At first glance, the number of agencies that Feng’s work intersects with can seem dizzying—the Port of San Francisco, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Federal Transit Administration, among others. Each piece, however, is essential to Feng’s best efforts to ensure that BART’s operations will adapt over the next 50 to 100 years, even as the projected sea-level rise for the Bay Area is an increase of 7 feet by 2100.

BART’s building-based solutions to keep trains running after a major flood event include hardening components of individual stations, like areas that house transformers and other sensitive electrical and mechanical equipment. The mitigation measures that the transit agency already employs in the event of heavy rainfall are simple but effective: being vigilant and proactive about keeping system drains and sump pumps clean and free of debris, and clearing trees that could cause problems in extreme weather.

Ultimately, Feng says, the best solutions will strike the right balance between adapting or retreating and hardening.

“I hope architects take a leading role in harmonizing the vertical and lateral approaches to climate resiliency,” he says. “Participating in codifying resilient design is something I see happening. A holistic approach—that is the architects’ duty. We’re trained to always see multiple solutions.”

East Coast/Northeast

When Dena Prastos, AIA, was growing up in Anchorage, Alaska, she became interested in the ways in which human-made infrastructure can withstand extreme weather conditions caused by the natural environment—and learned that the two don’t always have to be in opposition.

“That was a departure point, to be able to appreciate nature and the built world and focus on that interface of nature and the man-made,” she says.

Prastos describes herself as “an atypical architect who does not usually work on buildings, at least not in the traditional sense.” She is the founder of Indigo River, a New York–based transdisciplinary studio focusing on climate adaptation, specifically regarding waterfront infrastructure and flood resiliency. She also lends her unique insights in this area to the efforts of AIA’s Resilience and Adaptation Advisory Group.

“Because we’re so comfortable working on, in, and with the water, we’ve parlayed into analyzing structures where the project architects may be great at what they do, but they’re not always used to flood mitigation concerns and impacts from water, or environmental impacts,” she says.

Recently, Prastos was called on to consult for Wildflower Studios to focus on waterfront edge resiliency. The project, slated to be constructed in Astoria, Queens, is located on a site directly adjacent to Steinway Creek. The seven-story film, television, and creative studio, a project of Robert De Niro’s Wildflower development group with Bjarke Ingels Group as the architect of record, is projected to be completed in 2023. Prastos initially became involved with designing the shoreline adjacent to the building, a rip-rap and bulkhead park intended to mitigate the impacts of erosion and potential flooding.

“Midway through, the team realized they needed someone to coordinate the resiliency efforts on the upland site and within the building,” Prastos says. Prastos conducted a building vulnerability assessment to identify areas of the proposed building that could be susceptible to flood damage, evaluating the vulnerability of both the existing site and the proposed assets at the building level. In addition, she offered risk assessment and economic loss estimations to improve returns and resilience. Specifically, Prastos identified existing site vulnerabilities and examined the potential damage and loss to the proposed building structures, as well as business interruptions from flooding. Based on these findings, the team developed a series of risk mitigation and adaptation recommendations for the property and the newly proposed structures to protect against flooding risks and climate change impacts. The finalized design, she explains, followed structural and operational recommendations from the report, including hazard and risk mitigation strategies -- namely, climate adaptation recommendations related to rising sea levels, ensuring that the building's resilient design accounts for emergency response and business continuity plans.

Indigo River’s work is innovative, and Prastos sees it becoming increasingly necessary and in demand in the coming years. Being well-versed in the permitting and regulatory process behind waterfront infrastructure—an area that Indigo River specialized in on another recent project, 5 miles of bulkheads that needed repair at the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway—allows the firm to fill a variety of roles to best meet clients’ needs.

Adaptation and flexibility, Prastos feels, are going to be essential to the profession moving forward. “Within the traditional architecture field, it’s not common to have forward-looking designs based on future climate projections,” she says.

“As a profession, it’s our duty to adapt physical infrastructure. Climate adaptation and climate justice are inextricably linked.”

Gulf Coast

Gina De Leon credits her architecture background as the catalyst behind her career as a disaster recovery manager—that, and her deep roots in her hometown.

“I’m Houston, Texas–born and raised,” she says. “I like to say I survived my first hurricane at age 1, Hurricane Alicia. It’s just a part of life.”

While in graduate school, De Leon assisted with disaster recovery efforts in Biloxi, Miss., after Hurricane Katrina, mobilizing residents to engage in participatory design as part of the rebuilding process. In the time since, she says, the term “resilience” as it relates to the built environment has become more holistic—to include “resilient communities, social determinants of health, how we think about communities and how we build them and design them with an equity lens and [with] the resident as stakeholder.”

After 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, De Leon worked with nonprofit agencies to secure funding for the repair of 230 homes. She has continued to hone her skills managing the complex funding and compliance threads woven in and out of the process of disaster recovery, which she currently does at a consulting firm. She also lends her expertise to AIA’s Resilience and Adaptation Advisory Group.

“A lot of my clients now are local governments. What do they do with an influx of [Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery] dollars or federal funding?” she says. “How do we effectively use those dollars for the communities that need them? Especially when you’re prone to disasters reoccurring—they’re just happening more frequently. The data and research show that.”

All of the restorations that De Leon helps facilitate allow for structures to be retrofitted so that they will be able to better withstand the next flood or hurricane.

“All the clients that you help, you hope that you don’t have to help them again, because their home was able to withstand,” she says.

De Leon is passionate about emphasizing equity—the people she is doing the work for—at every turn.

“Communities of color are always disproportionally affected by disasters,” says De Leon, who is first-generation Mexican American. Disinvestment in these communities can often lead to homes with deferred maintenance, causing a cascade of problems from an extreme weather event.

In her work, De Leon sees a gap that she wishes would be addressed by lawmakers and policymakers: When disasters happen, there are fewer financial resources for renters or residents of multifamily housing versus those who own their homes.

“Philanthropic funding is flexible. At least in [Hurricane] Sandy, they were able to help renters, but here we can only work with homeowners,” she says. “Unless you have a good landlord or somebody who is really invested, they have to sometimes wait for those CDBGDR dollars to come down. It can take years.”

When it comes to issues of resilience and disaster management, De Leon says she would like to see more architects at the decision-making table acting as community-building stewards, especially ones who understand the intricacies of federal funding.

“I see the research, I see the patterns, I think resiliency is only going to become more necessary and imperative,” she says.