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Looking at the Relationship Between the Built Environment and Natural Disasters: Q&A With Steve Moddemeyer

JLL, HFF, Capital Markets, Chicago, Jones Lang LaSalle Incorporated

By Jack Stubbs

Seattle and the Puget Sound region is an area known for its access to the great outdoors, and trends in the AEC community reflect this emphasis on the natural environment through architecture. The built environment is not only designed to be pleasing on the eye, but is also constructed to help mitigate concerns around the safety of building occupants as well.

The Resilient America Roundtable, an organization based in Washington, D.C. that is part of the National Academy of Sciences, helps communities and the nation build resilience to extreme events, save lives, and reduce the physical and economic costs of disasters. The Roundtable is active in four different pilot cities across the country: Cedar Rapids, IA, Charleston, SC, Tulsa, OK, and Seattle, WA.

We recently spoke with Steve Moddemeyer—principal at Seattle-based architecture firm CollinsWoerman and a member of the Roundtable in Seattle—about the organization, what it hopes to accomplish in tandem with the city of Seattle through the Puget Sound Regional Counsel’s vision for 2050, and how infrastructure in the built environment can help communities prepare for natural disasters.

What is your your personal involvement in this topic? Have you always had an interest in this, and in what ways has that exhibited itself?

My involvement in the Roundtable and interest in the topic of resiliency grew out of my concern about climate change. Currently, the way we design cities and infrastructure is based on the way the climate used to be. While many people think the effects of climate change are decades down the road, the truth is [that] climate change is happening now and our designs and infrastructure should reflect those changes.

We recently held a workshop with La Conner [a town in Skagit County, Washington] to address the effects of climate change on a city at sea level. Getting into communities that will be negatively impacted by sea level rise to educate them early is key. With my background in landscape architecture, landscape ecology, salmon and city issues, I’m able to bring ecological awareness into the resilience conversation and answer questions about what it means [to be] planning a city or designing infrastructure affected by climate change.

How does the city infrastructure in Seattle, specifically, relate to the Seattle Regional Council’s 2050 vision? What do you foresee for the trajectory of the city moving forward?

The Rockefeller Foundation provides grants for 100 resilient cities and the Rockefeller has a program that groups buy into, which allows a grant of $1 million dollars [for cities] to follow their program. Seattle has its own Rockefeller Foundation grant.

King County also has its own internal process, which is separate from the Rockefeller but with a more engineered approach and a strong social equity element. Although there are two different versions, they have a lot of the same functions underneath them.

The Puget Sound Regional Counsel’s vision for 2050 coordinates regional policies [that filter] down into growth management. The organizations create a policy framework for the four counties and eighty or ninety cities, all in central Puget Sound, serving as the funnel that transportation funding goes through. In these situations, each plays a role in resilience, both at the regional and city policy level, which will eventually in the next year or two develop regional policies or at least get the thinking going that will then enable the counties and cities to also follow suit and integrate it into how they do their long range urban planning.

Who comprises the roundtable, and what other companies and industries are represented?

The Roundtable includes people with all different professional backgrounds, including the Admiral of the Coast Guard and the head of the Army Corps of Engineers, people from Homeland Security and FEMA, academics, and then a few practitioners of which I’m one.

For the Seattle Roundtable, I participate in all meetings with the Puget Sound Regional Council and local governments and tribes about how they’re thinking about resilience and what it means, and what they want it to mean.

How does the field or architectural and design, in particular, add a unique perspective when it comes to planning for natural disasters? What unique perspectives and strategies can architecture firms bring to the table?

AIA had a resilience workshop, and CollinsWoerman was one of the guiding lights of that in engaging the architectural community. We focused on [asking] what resilience means for us, what it means for our practice, and what it means for the way we design. In the context of climate change, social equity and the earthquake, we know there’s a lot of room for improvement.

Currently, the codes for building would allow the occupants in the building to survive an earthquake but the building would no longer be useful. After developing dozens of buildings across Seattle, all of them would be trash heap-ready after the next earthquake. That is billions of dollars’ worth of buildings that were designed to this minimum standard because people don’t die in the earthquake.

How has awareness around climate change and our environment evolved over the last 2 to 3 years? Do you feel that people are more aware than they were a few years ago?

Well, it’s two things. One of the issues is that everyone’s [training] and all of our regulations are based on [the question of] how frequently [the building] will fail. We design our buildings to withstand an event of a certain size, but we don’t pick the design that helps recovery happen, and we’re leaving that out of our calculations.

When you include recovery, it changes what your design job is and it opens up new solutions that you might not have thought of. And it may not matter that the building breaks more often if it recovers more quickly. That’s one of the biggest shifts that has not happened yet.

Can you speak more specifically to the “resilience priorities” in the Seattle region (equity, climate adaptation, transportation and rapid economic growth)?

The Puget Sound Regional Council—[which] includes four counties, 80-some cities and some of the tribes—is looking at how to integrate resilience thinking into what they do. The Regional Transport Planning Organization (RTPO) gives money for transportation projects. Because of this, they are interested [in] how they [can] integrate resiliency planning into their work over the next few years. So, the Roundtable is able to bring in national expertise to help them do that.

One of the key insights I’m sharing is that most people do not follow the ecological version of resilience. Instead, they focus on engineering resilience, which is when you identify an earthquake of a certain size, a certain amount of shaking, and you design a building to withstand that, or you design for a drought of a certain length and a water system for that and the culverts for a flood of a certain size. These are all based on climate; the earthquake is based on recurrence. So, if we get an earthquake every 150 years, most people figure, “Well, we just have to make sure people can live through it.”

Right now, almost all buildings are designed so that after the earthquake you can walk out alive, but the building will likely be thrown away. That means that it’s one, two, three, or four years, depending on how much damage there was, before you can reuse the building space.

Can you elaborate on what “the Big One” might look like, for those less familiar with it?

A community can’t predict earthquakes, but we can think about what the next big one will look like. What does it mean for homeowners, for businesses? Are we talking about complete buildings collapsing in places like Pioneer square, or the horror stories of everything that’s west of Second Avenue just sinking into the Puget Sound?

The truth in life is that things are going to get broken. It’s just the way life is and we can’t predict everything in all [our] plans for everybody. However, we can improve our capacity to adapt to sudden change. And that’s what we ought to be working on while we have the time to work on it, because there’s no time like the present.

Looking ahead, how will community-led programs and business collaborate and communicate so as to proactively address future issues like “the Big One”?

I think [by] shifting priorities and raising the standard for all buildings and retrofit buildings, based on recovery we need buildings to be usable after the earthquake, which will raise the costs.

If you want to have a city after the earthquake, do you want to have a hundred buildings that have to be torn down? If accelerating is a goal, which it ought to be, then how long is it okay for downtown to be closed? I would guess most people would not say three years, five years or seven years.

For example, when I-5 falls down, they’re saying it would take ten years to reopen it. And that includes not just the physical system but the way that we connect people together. The more diverse the community, the more life histories, the more cultural diversity, the more strategies you have to adapt to change, the smarter the city gets. There are all sorts of strategies that make sense, that fit with our values and that we can be doing more of. And that are all affordable in the big mix of things.