The AIA 2030 Commitment: A Game Changer

StormSurge.shutterstock_111707399Imagine this: The lobby of your office building is flooding with water. It’s rushing in through broken storefronts and will soon be over your head in depth. Something in the basement explodes, rocking the whole structure. The power goes out, and you scramble up a fire stair seeking safety.

A couple days ago, this story was being re-told to a roomful of people who had assembled for a press event in Boston, Massachusetts. Not a unique human experience if you lived in New Orleans in August 2005 or Brattleboro Vermont in August 2011 or in Miyako Japan in April 2011, but this happened in lower Manhattan on October 29, 2012, as hurricane Sandy hit.

The event: Mayor Thomas Menino was announcing important new planning and policy initiatives that would make Boston better-prepared for severe storms and other natural catastrophes related to climate change. “Preparing for the Rising Tide” had just been released: a weighty and well-researched report by the Boston Harbor Association that spelled out the City’s vulnerability to sea-level rise in great detail and outlined the public and private sector roles in climate change response. The City – and the commercial real estate industry – was ready to talk preparedness. Most of us from the steering committee of Mass Impact, a joint BSA and MIT summit held in 2008 on the very same subject, were there to applaud the City’s actions.  The news media was all over it.

But the show-stopper that morning was that story from Hurricane Sandy as related by Bryan Koop, Senior VP of Boston Properties, a member of the Mayor’s Green Ribbon Commission on climate change. The owner of that building in New York had sand bags on hand and engineers in the basement ready to fire up the sump pumps. After the boiler exploded, the engineers swam to safety. The building is still empty. 

For commercial property owners in NYC, climate change was no longer an abstraction. The lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy would not be lost on Boston. “This storm was a game changer”, said Koop.

And so it was. In the New York Times last month, a Manhattan commercial property owner described a “new normal” for buildings: Gas-powered emergency generators on the roof, mechanical equipment on upper floors, waterproof concrete superstructures from the basement to second floor with watertight submarine-style doors. Forget sandbags, we’re talking portable interlocking floodgates stored in the basement to encircle the first floor.

I know what you’re thinking. When it finally happened in New York City we pay attention? When it’s not on CNN but in our own elite urban northeastern USA we finally take climate change seriously?

Patience, grasshoppers. The path to enlightenment is different for everyone.

When the Mayor’s event concluded, the conversations began. We can imagine what a more resilient public realm – a climate-ready Boston – will look like. Parking lots replaced by engineered wetlands. Swales and raised walks as surge barricades. Off-shore breaks. Subway stations designed to keep water out. Parking structures designed as retention tanks. And that glorious tidal wave barrier, the DiMambro Plan . . . 

Resilience. Climate-ready design. Passive survivability. Yes, we understand that radically improving building energy efficiency is still design criteria number one for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from buildings. No, the AIA 2030 Commitment doesn’t ask how your projects can survive catastrophic sea level rise. You don’t get LEED points for designing to survive the impacts of climate change. But these are things that architects have to be ready for. And we will be.

I walked back from the briefing to Bergmeyer’s offices along Boston’s beautiful Harborwalk. I thought about how great it was that Boston’s harbor was now one of the cleanest in the world. I thought about how marvelous it was that our superhighway – the Central Artery – was now in a tunnel under the Rose Kennedy Greenway. I thought about how beautiful this City’s waterfront had become since I moved here almost 30 years ago and what a tragedy it would be if a catastrophic storm caused our harbor and our underground highway to collide.  

I went back to my desk and wrote what I knew.


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