Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
How to design disaster-proof places where people would actually want to live.
A tornado can dismantle the typical wood-frame house in four seconds. In the first second, it begins shattering the windows and scattering debris. Then air rushes in past the broken windows, under doors and through any other openings, inflating the house and popping the roof off. In the third second, without a roof, the walls collapse. By second four, anything inside the home – mementos, books, furniture – is now blowing away.
The speed of so much destruction poses a difficult design question for communities like Joplin, Missouri, that have been wrecked by tornadoes: How do you design a tornado-proof home that doesn't feel like a bunker on good days, outside of those four terrible seconds?
That tension between resiliency and livability is inherent in how we prepare for all kinds of disasters: more-frequent hurricanes, flooding, earthquakes.
"If you made a perfect earthquake structure, it would be a bunker with 24-inch walls and one small steel door for you to get in," says California-based architect Michael Willis. That structure would be based on the empirical measurements of structural engineers. "You could design it to be perfectly resistant. But it would not be a place you’d want to live."
The challenge of designing after disasters – or with disasters in mind – is to balance both, to build safe places where people might actually be willing to live.
This was the task behind the "Designing Recovery" competition sponsored by the American Institute of Architects, Make it Right, the St. Bernard Project and Architecture for Humanity, for which the winners have been announced today (Willis was the chair of the jury). Since June, architects have been trying to model new housing solutions for communities that have experienced three very different disasters: the 2011 tornado in Joplin, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and Superstorm Sandy in New York. The project is aiming to actually construct the winning designs, one selected for each setting, with the help of volunteer labor and donated funds and materials.
But particularly intriguing is the Joplin winner, shown at top, which faced a very different problem in a part of the country where the geology makes it impossible to build tornado cellars or basements.
Q4 Architects created a safe space within a home instead of a shelter underneath it, a kind of house inside of a house. The result is an idea that could be replicated anywhere in tornado alley: A highly indestructible 600 square-foot core of concrete masonry, hurricane shutters and tornado doors where a family could survive a tornado and live beyond it, with several more flexible (and affordable) rooms wrapped around it.
In the above floor plan, the family still gets its front porch (No. 7), light-filled great room (No. 5), an airy breezeway and bedroom wing. But, with a tornado approaching, residents can retreat into the core with its Murphy beds, kitchen, bathroom, access to backup systems and heavy-duty tornado doors.
"It’s going to do it’s best to fight the tornado," Elizabeth George, a senior architect with Q4 Architects, says of the home's "CORE." "Part of your house might get torn away, but the most important parts of the house are safe. After the disaster, everything is not lost. You’re able to keep the most valuable things, which are the people, the functions of the house, and maybe your valuables."
The genius of this idea is that it would be significantly more expensive to build out the same tornado precautions for the entire home (the CORE house, as with each of these projects, is meant to be constructed for under $50,000). And, chances are, you wouldn't want to live there. Instead, houses of numerous styles could be wrapped around such a safe space.
The idea captures that balance between resiliency and livability that should be built into how we think about preparing for any natural disaster in a future where they may strike even more frequently.
Top image via Q4 Architects.