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Designing for extreme weather events: how can we navigate climate change?

The evidence is there – extreme weather events are occurring more frequently than ever. So what role should design play in taking into account the increased risk? We talked to Jasmax, Isthmus and Prefab NZ to find out. 

Fehi, Gita, Hola… it’s been a busy cyclone season in Aotearoa. Likewise, the threat of devastating earthquakes is ever-present, if the Christchurch earthquakes and the 2016 Kaikōura earthquake is anything to go by. There’s also the risk of volcanic eruptions and tsunamis, human-caused disasters such as nuclear winter, and the inevitability of sea level rise.

The point is, New Zealand is a pretty extreme place. 

And it may get more extreme – or at least, the effects will. Since the 1980s, the cost of weather-related damage worldwide has risen from about US$50 billion per year to nearly US$200 billion. Across the ditch, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation predicts the cost of replacing buildings because of extreme weather could soar past $1 trillion in Australia alone by the end of this century. 

Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Risks Report says extreme weather events are the top risk in terms of likelihood and second top risk in terms of impact, just after weapons of mass destruction.

Such extreme challenges mean it’s more important than ever to be able to design structures that can meet them. And it’s safe to say the solutions architects in New Zealand and abroad are coming up with are considerably more advanced than the old No.8 wire.

Bitter cold

Antarctica. Earth’s coldest continent has long been infamous for its inhospitable conditions – but that hasn’t deterred Antarctica New Zealand from carrying out research there at Scott Base for about 60 years. 

The Government has allocated $6.2 million for a feasibility study of a redesign of the base. Depending if redevelopment goes ahead and what design is chosen, Antarctica New Zealand chief executive Peter Beggs says the process could take up to a decade.

Four firms have successfully applied to carry out work in separate areas: Jasmax-Hugh Broughton Architects (architecture), Turner and Townsend (quantity surveying), WSP Opus (structural/civil engineering), and Steensen Varming (building services). Teams will spend the next 12 months creating four concept designs based on user requirements, site investigations to understand environmental constraints and any learnings from the experiences of other nations’ Antarctic programmes. Antarctica New Zealand will then recommend a preferred option for a modern, low-impact, efficient facility, and a detailed business case with concept designs will be presented to Government in December 2018.

Simon Shelton, Antarctica New Zealand senior project manager and Scott Base Redevelopment project manager, says the chosen firms will need to be able to meet the challenges of Antarctica’s extreme environment.

“They need to be able to work as part of our organisation and understand our environmental, cultural and logistical requirements,” he says. “We chose these organisations for their operational skill, innovation, values and willingness to collaborate.”

Euan MacKellar of Jasmax, one half of the Jasmax-Hugh Broughton architects team, says he’s looking forward to the challenge.

“We will need to deliver high performance buildings in one of the most extreme natural environments on the planet,” he says. “It is a huge privilege to be part of the committed team creating designs which will help our scientists working in Antarctica.”

A team of four designers visited Antarctica this past December, and then again in February, to begin the design process.

But how do you design in an area where winter temperatures can plunge to more than 40 degrees Celsius below zero, with sustained winds of more than 100 kilometres per hour?

There is precedence for what could work. Antarctica New Zealand also recently completed a three-year upgrade of the Hillary Field Centre (HFC) at Scott Base. The upgrade – which also was budgeted for $6.2 million – was the southernmost building project in the world during construction.

From left: Jamie Lester (WSP Opus), Stephen Middleton (Jasmax), Martin Craig (Steensen Varming), Simon Shelton (Antarctica New Zealand) and Hugh Broughton (Hugh Broughton Architects). Photo credit: Antarctica New Zealand

The project added three new internal laboratories: a mobile container laboratory including a ‘plug-and-play’ docking facility, doubling the field deployment preparation area with a ‘warm porch,’ increased freezer storage space for field samples (such as ice cores), a workstation area for up to 15 people, three additional meeting rooms, and a breakout space. That might seem simple enough to build in a place like Christchurch where Antarctica New Zealand is based, but in the extreme environment of Antarctica, it required specialised equipment, construction techniques and safety measures, to name a few challenges.

For the construction, a drilling rig was flown to Antarctica in November 2015 in a US Air Force C17 aircraft for drilling, blasting and cutting earthworks. As the ground in Antarctica is permanently frozen, the only means of excavation was to blast and remove the fragmented material.

On arrival of a ship late January 2016, all pre-cast concrete, a crane, steel frames and building materials within 40 containers were offloaded. The pre-cast concrete foundations shipped down were positioned with tie rods drilled two metres into the permafrost. Excavated material was backfilled. By mid-February 2016, all steel work frame and precast floor panels of both porches was erected, followed by complete enclosure by early March – a race against the clock before the approaching Antarctic winter and constant darkness.   

“We had to work to really tight time frames that were fixed,” says Shelton. 

“If we missed the ship, there wasn’t another one for a whole year!”

Shelton adds more details. “About 180 people were involved in the build. They were all brought in and out over the three years. It was important that we managed fatigue levels by bringing in additional staff.”

Shelton says he’s proud of the work that was done – not just because it was finished on time and under budget, but because it meets the needs of the scientists working in Antarctica and shows extreme environments can be overcome by good planning and innovative design. 

“Anyone can create a building, but a building that functions well and is intuitive and caters for its intended use – that’s the goal,” he says. “It’s not just about building something that is designed. It’s having a facility that people love to be in and love to use.”

We should be designing collaboratively, with environmental scientists, environmental engineers, and ecologists, looking beyond the immediate risks and a reactive approach.

Scott Base with Mount Erebus in background. Photo by Dr Fiona Shanhun.

High (and not-so-high) water

About 71 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by water. But that doesn’t mean dealing with it isn’t a challenge.

There are a few bold ideas that have been proposed. Building things underwater has been done, but an entire stadium under the waves, as has been proposed for Auckland Harbour, would be a world-first. Yet the project has been the subject of significant criticism, and it’ll probably be years – if ever – before it can be realised.

Building on top of the water is another idea. The concept of seasteading has been championed by several people, including ‘New Zealand’s own’ Peter Thiel, who has poured more than $2 million into an organisation known as The Seasteading Institute.

The Seasteading Institute has reached an agreement with the government of French Polynesia for floating islands to be built in the protected waters of a Tahitian lagoon. The plan is to have construction begin by 2020.

“We believe the first key step is for seasteading to become not just possible, but sustainable – technologically, legally, and financially,” the organisation states. “In other words, the cost of living on the ocean must be low enough, and the business opportunities promising enough, such that there is an economic incentive for people to live on seasteads.”

But water on land can create extreme building challenges, too. Flooding – and sea level rise – comes to mind. Venice is sinking, but there are several more modern solutions to dealing with water. 

For instance, Danish firm Third Nature has designed a flood-proof car park. Called Pop-Up, it would use an underground reservoir to push the structure above ground as the reservoir fills with water. When the reservoir empties, it lowers.

“With Pop-Up, we have a humane response to man-made problems, combining three challenges in one overall solution, showing the world how climate adaptation, mobility and urban development do not have to be each other’s opposites in the viable cities of the future,” says Ole Schrøder, one of Third Nature’s founders.

Pop-Up

Yet Grant Bailey, principal landscape architect of New Zealand firm Isthmus, says the challenges go beyond sea level rise, or severe droughts that lead to extraordinary water shortages like what’s happened in Cape Town, South Africa. 

“Increased high intensity rain fall events will also challenge flood management and soil stability,” he says. “During extreme dry periods soil erosion will also be an issue for rural New Zealand.  Planning requires a range of tactics to manage this change.”

Bailey, who has nearly two decades of private and public sector experience, adds there are local examples of projects Isthmus has worked on that could serve as models for how to deal with the challenge of water, be it too much or too little. “[For] Kopupaka Reserve in West Auckland, we designed a stormwater reserve and public open space to provide for flood resilience and water quality improvements,” he says. “Our approach was a uniquely New Zealand response, one which considered the cultural values associated with water. 

“Woven into the landscape timber crib retaining structure provided for ecology, engineering and amenity solutions in an integrated design that balanced land, people and culture. We leveraged the value of the water and flooding aspects to create an open space that celebrates and works with these natural processes.”

There are more examples.

“Our work at Onehunga foreshore, while not addressing specific extremes, does highlight how our coastal edge can be designed in an environmentally sensitive way. We created a reserve with a number of beaches and habitats for shorebirds. [It shows that] reclamation and protection works does not have to be hard engineering responses.”

Seasteading.

Earthquakes

Anyone who’s spent much time in Aotearoa knows there’s a reason one of its nicknames is the shaky isles.

Of course, a lot has invested into technologies to help buildings stand  up better during and after earthquakes, especially since the Christchurch earthquakes seven years ago that  killed 185 people.

University of Canterbury (UC) Architectural Engineering lecturer Dr Giuseppe Loporcaro and Mechanical Engineering professor Milo Kral’s research into a new technique for assessing damage to steel rebars (the steel reinforcing rods contained within concrete slabs) – recently awarded $20,000 in UC’s annual Tech Jumpstart competition – could have major implications for the construction industry in the future. Loporcaro and Kral’s research will help determine  how much rebar has already stretched and how much capacity it still has before breaking if further shaking occurs, as rebar can only stretch so much before it breaks.

But why steel at all? That’s the view of Dr Jon Tanner, chief executive of the Wood Processors and Manufacturers Association, a wood industry advocacy group. 

Writing for news website Stuff last year, he claimed wood has several advantages. “It is lightweight. A wooden building weighs less than a steel concrete structure with obvious benefits in both construction and resilience. It is flexible. It can bend and stretch. The designed-in ‘snap-back’ quality is paramount in a quake.”

University of Canterbury professor Andy Buchanan has developed a completely new system for earthquake-resistant buildings using ‘post-tensioned’ structural timber, a stronger and safer alternative to traditional concrete and steel structures. The technology has been used in buildings in places like Vienna and Vancouver, and won the top prize at the KiwiNet Research Awards back in 2015.

NZTech chief executive Graeme Muller says when designing a building to withstand the extremes of an earthquake, tech can’t be overlooked – especially advanced spatial technology and geographic intelligence. Such technology was a large reason why the 2016 Kaikōura earthquake – a magnitude-7.8 temblor – did not cause more damage than it did, he says.

“Spatial tech has played such a large role in the rapid response to the earthquake and flowing into the fact, this is now a growing export opportunity for New Zealand.”

That’s not all, he says. “Eagle Technology, Environment Canterbury and others have helped the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management and their associated regional offices develop situational awareness maps, 3D scenes, site maps and building inspection applications to gather and distribute critical information to stakeholders.”

In other words: geospatial tech and 3D maps can help determine earthquake risk – which can influence what is built.

But what about upgrading existing structures? In the 1990s, the Parliament Buildings in Wellington were refurbished and strengthened with blocks of rubber and lead that were placed between the new foundations and the concrete beams. The blocks, which act like shock absorbers, can prevent large portions of movement generated during an earthquake from being transferred to the buildings’ foundations. This method of earthquake-resistant design, developed in New Zealand, is called “base isolation” because it helps isolate the building from its foundations.

Those weren’t the only upgrades. Once separated from their foundations, a ‘moat’ was placed around the Beehive to allow it to move up to 300 millimetres during an earthquake. Reinforced concrete was also added to the walls, which were joined to the floors with a combination of concrete and steel.

Speaking of things moving when the ground shakes, Auckland-based Tectonus has been developing an innovative solution that wouldn’t just be revolutionary in New Zealand, but could also be used in construction projects around the world. 

Tectonus’ Resilient Slip Friction Joint (RSFJ) can be placed between large beams of a building or in the corners of walls. When an earthquake strikes, the joints can move, then slip back into place when the shaking stops. 

Already the subject of worldwide interest, one of the largest projects in New Zealand to use Tectonus’ tech is the new terminal at Nelson Airport, which is installing RSFJs throughout. The $32 million project – created by Studio Pacific Architecture and managed by Aesculus Project Management – is expected to take about 24 months to complete.

Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

Human-made extremes

The natural environment can be a pretty extreme place. But the truth is, us humans do a pretty good (or in this case, bad) job of making things more extreme ourselves.

Nuclear war. Pollution. Environmental destruction caused by development (or the previously mentioned war and pollution). The list goes on.

Unless we build smarter – or stop finding ever-more-diabolical ways of killing each other in disputes over resources or artificial boundaries – it seems pretty likely the challenges will only become more extreme, too.

But as the challenges become more extreme, so too have the design solutions become increasingly innovative.

Take the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Located high above the Arctic Circle in the remote Svalbard Archipelago, the ultra-secure facility is designed to store samples of all the world’s seeds, which could be used to help restore the environment – and ensure humanity’s survival – in case of global catastrophe. In other words: apocalypse insurance.

Given the importance of its mission, it comes as no surprise that the Seed Vault is among the most secure buildings in the world. Svalbard was considered ideal because it was not prone to earthquakes and had permafrost, which aids seed preservation. At 130 metres above sea level, it will stay dry even if all the ice caps melted. Locally mined coal provides power for refrigeration units that further cool the seeds. Even if all the equipment did fail, it would take several weeks at the minimum before the temperature inside the facility rose to the surrounding sandstone bedrock's temperature of minus-three degrees Celsius – and several centuries before it rose to the freezing mark.

Innovative as it is, the Seed Vault does have a bunker-like design – and that’s not a coincidence. After all, the bunker and its many related designs – such as fallout shelters and panic rooms –emphasise security above almost everything else.

Yet bunker designs aren’t all bare concrete walls and reinforced steel doors (though there are plenty of those, of course) these days. There’s a booming demand for so-called ‘luxury bunkers’. 

Gary Lynch, general manager of Texas-based Rising S Company, says 2016 sales for their high-end bunkers grew 700 percent in 2016 compared to 2015. Following the election of Donald Trump as president, sales jumped another 300 percent.

Most bunkers are designed with necessities such as being able to withstand a nuclear strike, and equipped with power systems, water purification systems, blast valves, Nuclear-Biological-Chemical (NBC) air filtration, enough food to last for at least a year, and hydroponics for growing more food. But then there are facilities like the Survival Condo in the US state of Kansas, where in addition to an ​85-square-metre half-floor residence or a two-level, 335-square-metre penthouse there’s a pool, general store, theatre, bar and library (for those wondering, the condos start at US$4.5 million).

If enduring the end times in the middle of the nation that’s perhaps the most likely target for a nuclear attack isn’t for you, there’s the Oppidum in the Czech Republic, billed as “the largest billionaire bunker in the world.” The top-secret facility took 10 years to build, and now includes both an above-ground estate and a 7,150-square-metre bunker. 

It can be built to the owner’s exact specifications, and includes a swimming pool, spa, cinema, garden, wine vault, storage space for art collections, and more – all underground, of course. After all, if you can afford it, why not ride out the end of the world in style?

Outlets throughout the world have also covered the trend of American entrepreneurs building luxury boltholes in New Zealand. The more rural South Island is an especially popular destination for these well-heeled preppers to design the fortified complex of their dreams (or nightmares). As Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn told The New Yorker last year: “Saying you’re ‘buying a house in New Zealand’ is kind of a wink, wink, say no more.”

The Oppidum in the Czech Republic.

A “there is no try” future

Whether the design challenges human beings are facing are natural or of our own doing, Isthmus’ Bailey says the commonality they all share is they require collaboration.

“We should be designing collaboratively, with environmental scientists, environmental engineers, and ecologists, looking beyond the immediate risks and a reactive approach,” he says.

Pamela Bell, CEO of PrefabNZ, says prefabricated construction – buildings built off-site and then moved to where they need to be – could be a solution. She says prefabricated buildings can be an advantage when designing for extremes because they can be built off-site in less extreme environments, are quicker to build, more sustainable, and can increase health and safety as opposed to a structure built on-site in a potentially dangerous environment.

Bell adds New Zealand already has experience in this area. Most of the South Island town of Twizel consists of prefabricated construction, she says, and strict building codes mean there is no quality difference between structures built off or on-site.

And Bell says New Zealand already has a long history with designing for extremes.

“Māori were making buildings at the edge of wetlands before colonisation. So we’ve been doing this for a long time.”

There’s a reason for this, she says – and is the reason we need to keep designing for extremes. “New Zealand’s extreme, full stop.”

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