3 Ways To Build Cities That Withstand Earthquakes And Superstorms

Making our cities resilient to climate change means a shift away from the lowest-bid mentality and toward a model of shared risk, argues Autodesk VP Phil Bernstein.

As a young architect in 1993, I was working on the design for a new performing arts center near Biscayne Bay in downtown Miami. Our team, led by renowned architect César Pelli, faced a complex commission riddled with challenges. We wanted to create capacious public lobbies that would architecturally set the stage for the performances held in the theater, but immediately, we had a serious problem: Federal flood regulations demanded the lobby floor be 10 feet above street level. At the time, this felt like an enormous burden on the design. How could we make the buildings feel open, gracious, and public when all the action was raised a full floor above the street?

Climate change and rising sea levels weren’t on our radar 20 years ago, nor were the imminent dangers of storm destruction so vivid to urban residents today. Current analysis suggests that Hurricane Sandy–like storms may become annual events by 2100, and 80 percent of potential exposure can be found in the 30 largest cities in the world--with Miami near the top of the list.

Of late, there’s been growing public attention on how to make our cities “resilient,” able to bounce back quickly from the regular assault of the unstable environment. Our FEMA-inspired requirements in Miami were simple--raise the building above the incoming water in what we perceived to be a very unlikely event. It was the aqueous equivalent of preparing a building for an earthquake. But now climate change-driven disasters have become the earthquakes of the modern age--yet fiercer, only slightly less predictable, and more resistant to the application of brute intellect, concrete, and steel. Can we think and build our way to urban resilience with more than simple rules like floor-level height? We have the talent and the technology, but those factors alone are insufficient for the task at hand.

This might be a surprising conclusion from an architect and technologist who, as a vice president at Autodesk, studies the latest structures and the digital tools used to build them. With enough money and will, can’t we deploy today’s sophisticated technology to block the rising water, seal the subways, stabilize the roadways, and keep the lights on? My architecture colleagues in lower Manhattan, whose homes and offices were damaged by Sandy, will have plenty of ideas about how to fortify our cities. Those ideas and others like them will consume $52 trillion dollars in the next 10 years (which is almost double the typical output of worldwide construction) and generate a lot of design and construction business. Still, we’ll need to make some big changes in the norms of the building process before any of those design ideas have a chance of becoming real.

1. Everyone involved in building should share responsibility and risk.

First, creating resilience strategies that harden our infrastructure means finding new ways of understanding, managing, and embracing risk--something the building industry is not good at. As anyone in the field knows, many projects--as many as a third--fail to meet basic objectives like schedules or deadlines. Construction is also one of the most litigious realms of modern business today; often the last phase of any building project consists of the various parties attempting to assign blame for failures, both real and imagined. We have few ways of assessing, measuring, quantifying, or assigning risk in building projects and no incentives for designers, builders, or even project financiers to assume it. We just don’t have that muscle, but we need to develop it quickly, with new risk-assessment tools that can quantify the probabilities, size, and effects of future storms.

Clients today--and especially government--negotiate vigorously to shift as much of the risk as possible to providers in the misbegotten quest to step away from any responsibility for problems or failures irrespective of their origin. Yet the inherently unpredictable nature of increasing city resiliency won’t come without risks, and those risks should be shared by all the players in the process. Courts in Italy recently found seismic engineers criminally negligent for failure to properly predict a deadly earthquake, guaranteeing that no such engineers will ever want to work in Italy again. Does this serve the public interest?

2. Improvise solutions to disaster.

Making our cities resilient also demands that designers and builders anticipate the magnitude of the adverse effects of storms with the flexibility to improvise new solutions as the completely expected unexpected occurs. By contrast, design and building methods today are ploddingly linear, sequential, and mostly impervious to opportunities for such improvisation. Designers create without help from builders, and builders struggle to understand the resulting ideas. Improvisation isn’t part of the formula, but it should be.

3. Shift the emphasis from cost to outcome.

You can’t develop muscles that you don’t use, and the current business models of Western construction--the delivery mechanisms by which any infrastructure resilience project will be made real--are completely unsuited to the monumental task of fortifying our cities. We’ve seen how well a project of similar complexity, Boston’s Big Dig, has fared under existing norms. Most construction is measured by a single reductive common denominator--the low bid. Thus, designers and builders are perversely incentivized to work as little as possible, take on as little risk as possible, and avoid opportunities for improvisation. Everyone is working toward their own goals first and the objectives of the project second. This situation results in what aviators call a “goat rodeo,” where about a hundred things have to go exactly right to escape unscathed. Clients, government agencies, architects and engineers, and builders need a new set of rules, codes, and business norms--and we should work together to create them.

We need to shift from lowest first-cost contracting to deals based on project outcomes. With today’s building technologies, project teams can simulate the behavior of proposed designs and test digital prototypes for resilience before they are ever constructed. Why not leverage these capabilities to structure projects and align everyone--government agencies, designers, builders, operators--around a set of agreed-upon performance goals, assign risk and reward accordingly? Low-bid, low-margin government contracting would need to be eliminated, and government will need to become a partner, rather than a consumer, of design and construction.

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New procurement models that rely on the predictive information available through new technologies should allow everyone to define, share, and manage risk with more precision. But first, there needs to be a willingness to change the norms of how we design and build our cities. This is a huge shift. The legislative changes we need normally take years--time we don’t have as we await the 2013 hurricane season in the United States. Federal building policy should encourage new innovations and shared risks and rewards, and set examples for new ways of solving the nation’s infrastructure challenges. We designed our lobbies in Miami with the attitude that constraints actually drive new ideas. Avoiding the goat rodeo should do the same.

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