Blueprint for Coastal Adaptation: 4 Elements of Resilient Design
For coastal communities, resilience design has shifted from nice-to-have to necessary
With a rapidly warming planet and increasing ferocity of weather patterns, coastal adaptation through resilience design has an added emphasis for today’s built environments.
It’s for good reason too. Currently, more than 50% of the US population – some 164 million Americans – live in coastal watershed communities while generating 58% of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). And that number is only growing as more than 1.2 million move to the coast each year.
These coastal communities often bear the brunt of unpredictable weather and seismic events. Vulnerable communities like these must be resilient by design, and able to bounce back after even the most intense storm, tidal wave, earthquake or other catastrophic event.
Sustainability in planning and design, a core tenant of Otak’s mission, aligns directly with an approach to coastal adaptation. In this piece, we’ll discuss how a focus on coastal adaptation planning and resilience design translates into stronger coastal infrastructure and communities, at a time when they’re needed more than ever.
Read along or skip ahead below:
- What is Coastal Adaptation?
- Why is Resilient Design Important?
- Elements of Coastal Adaptation and Resilience
- How to Approach Coastal Adaptation with Resilient Design
- Examples of Coastal Resilient Design
What is Coastal Adaptation and Resilience Design?
Coastal Resilience is defined as “building the ability of a community to bounce back after hazardous events such as hurricanes, coastal storms, and flooding—rather than simply reacting to impacts.”
Resilient design is a matter of preparedness, of being ready for natural hazards before they happen, and of informing clients to be aware of all factors in the design-build process. For example, the overdue cascadia earthquake presents a significant challenge in designing along the coastal fault line. Decisions and plans need to be made to anticipate and mitigate these environmental inevitabilities.
Why is Coastal Adaptation and Resilience Design Important?
Such high priority is placed on the resilient design of coastal communities for a variety of reasons. Among them is the simple fact that it’s a matter of survival. Not just the survival of the people in that community, but also the survival of critical infrastructures like power grids, water management systems, bridges, and schools.
This causes us to ask unique questions when we go to work. For instance, how will this community function when, not if, a major environmental event happens? How can existing structures be made into multi-use facilities in times of crisis? Most of all, how can the community adapt to these impacts? It all comes back to how these questions are answered during resilience design and planning.
4 Elements of Coastal Adaptation and Resilience
While there are a variety of variables that come with each specific situation and environment, there are also some overarching factors that impact any coastal resilience planning. These factors help assess vulnerabilities, investigate possible solutions, and set priorities among options that address those highest risks.
As a foundation for designers and planners, these factors can help communities, cities, regions, and governments quantify their vulnerability and risk, while prioritizing people, ecosystems, and economics into their plans.
1. Structurally Sound Built Environments
The first step to designing these communities is making sure all buildings are structurally and architecturally sound.
Regional specifics inform these design choices for coastal structures, like adding stilts to houses to account for sea-level rise, among others. It’s about taking a long-term view of creating a space, being mindful of how the community lifecycle will function in 50-100 years into the future.
2. Design for Environmental Sensitivities
Local environments have a direct impact on the vulnerabilities and potential hazards that need to be considered during coastal resilience planning. Those details, such as water restoration, also factor into the design of structures themselves and how recovery will affect the surrounding area.
Especially when talking about environmentally sensitive sites, the design should match those nuances and be able to respond to the natural environment accordingly. This can inform decisions down to the last detail. For example, the choice between building with stainless versus galvanized steel can be critical in ensuring the resilience of the structure.
3. Efficiency and Sustainability in Upkeep and Recovery
As hazards and extreme events become more commonplace, the question now often becomes not how does coastal adaptation planning avoid damage, but rather, how does it allow structures (and communities) to recover after the fact?
What happens in the aftermath of a catastrophic event can be equally, if not more important than what happens during. The ability for infrastructure to remain functional, despite sustaining damage, can be all the difference when the fundamentals for survival are at a premium.
How a built environment operates outside of a catastrophic event also has an impact. Limiting the amount of maintenance and upkeep increases preparedness while efficiency and sustainability factors help ensure that built environment isn’t contributing to the underlying causes of climate change while also keeping the costs of waste at a minimum.
4. Planning for Community Vulnerabilities
The process of coastal adaptation and resilience is a constant state of analysis, an ongoing attempt to answer the question of how these communities will function both before and after a catastrophic event.
Building resilience and equity into planning is ultimately about protecting people and saving lives. And it’s important to recognize that certain areas or demographics of a single community can often be more vulnerable than others. Addressing these disparities should come through in the design of infrastructure and the intent behind its built environments.
Adaptive-use structures, or buildings with more than one purpose, are just one way to account for this issue. This means designing spaces like schools that can become shelters with their own generators in case of power grid failure, or we add height to bridges to account for flooding. When we design with intention of keeping people safe, communities are better able to respond on their own until help arrives and are ultimately more prepared to survive.
How to Approach Coastal Adaptation with Resilience Design
While there are a multitude of factors that must be accounted for when planning a community’s resilience design, the approach is often threefold:
- Assess regional risk in resilience design by understanding the locations, unique environmental factors, cost details, and most importantly opportunities for improvement in any building phase.
- Plan how structures will function during hazardous events, and be converted for multiple uses in times of crisis.
- Consider the sustainability of the structure and how it will be used 50-100 years from now, understanding the current carbon footprint and how to reduce it.
However, there are societal and social factors that go into how resilient communities are designed which should also be taken into account.
Identifying Social Vulnerabilities
It is critical to note here that climate change and weather events affect lower-income and houseless people to a higher degree than those with more resources. Clients need to be advised of the social impacts their projects entail because there is a relationship between houseless populations and how we plan for resiliency.
The lack of reasonable, low-income housing is just one issue that exacerbates this reality, which is why resilient communities must account for the whole of the population. Encouraging clients to think about these ideas ultimately makes for a stronger structure that can serve everyone, regardless of socioeconomic background. The reality is natural hazards do not discern between social standing, and communities that are truly resilient are also built with equity and the marginalized in mind.
Accounting for Climate Change Adaptation
While designing with resilience in mind, it’s imperative for coastal communities that projects come down to client goals. It’s important to gauge how clients feel they play into a municipality’s ability to adapt, using this information to inform how we present solutions to their problems.
During resilience planning and design, it’s of utmost importance to stress what the intent of the development truly aims to accomplish. Again, all pieces of infrastructure must be structurally and architecturally sound while meeting those goals.
The result is a resilient community with that also benefits from a reduced carbon footprint in the process.
Lake Shorelines versus Ocean Shorelines
It’s also important to note, not all coastlines are the same. Resilience on shorelines doesn’t just apply to coastal communities. In fact, inland lake shorelines (not to mention river, creek and other shorelines with their own unique properties) must also be planned with a resilient design top of mind. The differences are plenty, however, there is a key distinction between the two.
For instance, if a coastline is not fraught with natural disasters every day, clients can take advantage of good weather conditions by harnessing alternative energy sources like solar power, wind power, and hydraulic power.
Inland lakes lack a tidal risk factor, meaning that communities along ocean shorelines must contend with events like king tides, or tidal shifts that can drastically affect the ferocity of coastal storms. While wind hazards are risk factors for both types of shorelines, there are decisions that need to be made when dealing with one versus the other.
Coastal Resilience Examples: How Otak Builds Resilience in Coastal Communities
Much like the weather events we’ve discussed, Otak’s work is also defined by intersections, and one of the biggest of these is the relationship between our built and natural environment. So, what makes our approach unique?
For one, Otak’s experience is multinational, meaning we have experience across different types of coastlines worldwide and have utilized design solutions that other firms may not have access to.
As a globally positioned organization, Otak has a unique vantage point that cannot be replicated. Just one example of our experience with different locales is our work for the Nestucca Valley School District, a rural educational model that satisfies our requirements of resiliency in an area at risk of wildfires. The school was renovated for existing students but designed for the whole community as a multi-use facility. With a full generator system, and grass fields big enough for helicopter transport, the school can house 3000 people with full power for 3-4 days.
Second, Otak’s experience with public infrastructure sets us apart. Not only are we designing for structures that can stand up to harsh weather events, but we’re also planning for how quickly these buildings can bounce back, post-event. This can affect systems like a community’s water supply, wastewater management, and transportation infrastructure.
That’s why we build redundancies into existing systems. From making sure bridges are high enough to account for sea-level rise, to making sure secondary routes are available for evacuated motorists, to installing multiple pipelines in case of earthquakes. When it comes to resilience design, Otak’s work with coastal communities means we can walk our talk.
Want to discover more sustainable projects? Check out more examples of our work in sustainable, resilient design spaces and see how they aim to serve every aspect of the community.