Tracy Lee

Mid-2020 may go down in history as a summer of natural disasters: The coronavirus pandemic, an unprecedented biological disaster, will likely continue wreaking havoc around the country for the next few months—or longer. Meanwhile, NOAA has predicted an above-normal hurricane season this year, due to warmer-than-average ocean temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. And air temperatures across the country are slated to be hotter than usual this summer, leading to potentially dangerous overheating in urban areas and wildfires in the West.

These cascading events could utterly tax emergency management officials, who are already stretched in their efforts to respond to COVID-19. While FEMA and the Red Cross play vital roles in disaster preparedness and response, local governments take the lead in assisting residents before, and after, a disaster strikes. But responding in the middle of the pandemic will require a vastly broadened skill set: Shelter plans will need to be expanded to accommodate social distancing, for example, and officials will have to develop plans for contingencies such as flooding or power loss to hospitals with patients on ventilators, or to senior living facilities whose residents may be infected with COVID-19.

From the Ground Up

Some of these potential situations are outlined in FEMA’s recent “COVID-19 Pandemic Operational Guidance for the 2020 Hurricane Season,” which aims to align closely with the federal government’s Guidelines for Opening Up America Again. It recommends temperature and health screening procedures prior to entry at all facilities or sites, cleaning and disinfection procedures, and instructions about face coverings, among other things. “The nation’s emergency management system is most successful when it is locally executed, state managed, and federally supported,” the guide reads—meaning that many details will have to be worked out on the ground by local emergency management officials.

Architects will have a distinct role to play as well in the upcoming season. While most aren’t directly trained to respond to natural and man-made hazards, they do have a distinct knowledge base and set of capabilities that can be very valuable during disaster recovery.

“Architects by training have something to offer,” says Al Comly, AIA; he serves as AIA Pennsylvania’s state disaster coordinator, and is also on AIA’s national Disaster Assistance Committee. “We know something about human behavior in terms of how design works. And a good part of [disaster response] is about human behavior and how to modify it.” Architects are uniquely trained to handle all the different moving parts that accompany the response to a natural disaster. “If you liken it to designing a big project where the architect is facilitating the interactions between the engineer, the owner, the designer, and others—the architect is the composer that makes sure everyone is doing what they’re supposed to be doing. It’s the same when you’re responding to a natural disaster,” says Brandon Love, AIA, the deputy city manager of Lumberton, N.C., which was devastated by hurricanes Florence (2018) and Matthew (2016). “Architects in general tend to think a little differently.”

But governments and the general public aren’t necessarily familiar with architects’ value-add when it comes to crisis recovery. Finding a point of entry or figuring out who to work with can be a challenge for anyone; the agencies in charge can vary from county to county.

Getting Involved

AIA has some clear ways that architects can get involved in disaster response. A first stop might be AIA’s Disaster Assistance Committee (DAC), which has been around for decades. Among other focuses, the committee offers a volunteer Safety Assessment Program that trains architects and others in the AEC industry to evaluate homes and other structures after a disaster has occurred. The service can allow individuals to return to their homes quickly and thereby spend less time crowded into a shelter where the risk of contracting COVID-19 may be higher.

Usually, the program requires an eight-hour, in-person training, but DAC chair Scott Eddy, AIA, says that during this time of social distancing, it can be done virtually. He and his colleagues on the committee are determining other ways to ensure the safety of volunteer evaluators as they visit affected structures.

The assessment program is a way of becoming involved after a disaster has occurred, but architects can insert themselves in preparedness efforts as well—though those avenues aren’t as established.

In New York, the New York arm of AIA’s Disaster Assistance Program can serve as an inspiring example for interested architects. In response to the spike in coronavirus infections that occurred there this spring, Illya Azaroff, AIA, the AIA New York state disaster coordinator, led an ad-hoc effort to lend expertise to the city and state.

It started with the N.Y. State Department of State contacting AIANY in search of a list of buildings across New York that could be used as alternative care facilities during the crisis. The call came on a Thursday, Azaroff says. “We activated our network of emergency architects, and then AIANY put it out to every architect throughout the state”—well over 9,000 people, he says. “By the next morning, we’d identified over 1,000 buildings for the Department of State.”

That effort jump-started the creation of a unified task force of engaged AIA members, most of whom had many other ideas about how they could be of use. The group began meeting twice a week and eventually divided into eight subgroups with different focuses. One of the subgroups created a list of healthcare architects, engineers, and facility managers for the state Department of Health; another coordinated the 3D printing of PPE, which was then scarce; and another continues to develop advisories for building owners and managers that lay out HVAC and air quality standards in plain language.

“We’re just a group that created an umbrella and is finding common ground,” Azaroff says. “We’re making sure people’s ideas and work have a foundation and the traction to go somewhere.”

The group was focused on the coronavirus crisis, but their work is relevant to any number of different types of disasters. And now that New York’s peak of infections has passed, the task force is beginning to examine how to mitigate the compound effects of extreme heat, storms, and the coronavirus. In New York, the real issue is heat, not hurricanes. But the questions are the same: How do you create barriers, design for social distancing, or expand the number of facilities in order to make sure that cooling centers or shelters aren’t too crowded?

A Need for Space

In many cities and counties, officials are just beginning to look into additional sites for emergency shelters; by some estimates, they’ll need roughly five times as much space as in normal years in order to meet social distancing standards. When asked about it, Azaroff says, “My answer is always, ‘You need to engage your local AIA and get candidates for space.’”

When they do create a list of potential alternative shelters and care sites, architects can be aided by a new guide released by AIA in late May. The Re-Occupancy Assessment Tool provides parameters and strategies that will allow businesses, schools, restaurants, and other facilities to safely reopen and provide services. It lists designs and details meant to reduce the spread of infection, outlining elements like indoor and outdoor space planning, ventilation, and the design of restrooms, as well as policies and procedures covering symptomatic people and generally reducing the spread of pathogens.

In creating the tool, AIA sought to address a need for guidance for the built environment that holistically addressed the CDC’s Hierarchy of Controls to ensure the public’s health, safety, and welfare. An accompanying seven-step Risk Management Plan for Buildings helps architects to conduct a hazard analysis and assess potential primary and secondary risks. While the tool is largely focused on addressing the COVID-19 threat, it’s also meant to be useful in the case of a secondary crisis, says Ken Filarksi, FAIA. As the AIA disaster coordinator for the state of Rhode Island, he helped write the report.

In the case of a hurricane while the coronavirus is still a major worry, Filarski says, “What if they crowd a whole bunch of people into a gymnasium, or even a parking lot? That’s a breeding ground for disease transmission.”

“The protocols that are part of [the tool] will help in strategies and implementation in terms of how to care for people,” he says.

It’s a step-by-step guide that will help structures and spaces remain healthy and safe—created by people whose entire professional lives have been spent studying how humans interact with the built environment.