As Harvey, Irma, and Maria have made painfully clear, there is no escaping climate change. So assess the risks, and design for resilience.
On an average sunny day in Houston, the water in Buffalo Bayou Park burbles along at an elevation of about 2 feet. When the bayou floods—which, as one of the lowest points in a flat city and the natural runoff path for a large watershed, it is wont to do—the park can contain things until the water tops 28 feet. When Hurricane Harvey barreled through the city in August, the water reached 39 feet. “We knew from Day One that the reason that landscape is there is because it’s in a flood plain,” says Page senior principal Lawrence W. Speck, FAIA, who designed the park structures (which ARCHITECT featured in March). “But this kind of flood? No one ever thought there would be this kind of flood.”
In the lower parts of the park, shade pavilions made from board-formed concrete, paved trails, stairs, handrails, signage, and even lighting were all designed to be able to withstand submersion—and lo, they did. When the water began to recede, these structures emerged largely unscathed. “They were hosed off and back to working order,” Speck says.
The only conditioned spaces in Page's scheme were built at the few points in the park above the 500-year flood plain, but even they came close to inundation: The first level of the boathouse at Lost Lake flooded entirely, but it holds only boat storage. “I mean, it’s boats for God's sakes. Everything down there was something that you just hose off and it’s ok,” Speck says. The flood waters rose to, but not over, the floor slab of the restaurant on the second level, and it was able to reopen within days.
The plantings were also designed to be able to take a beating. “We know that the trees can take being submerged for a long period of time,” says Scott McCready, a principal at SWA Group, which did the park’s landscape design. But the lower parts of the park may remain submerged for weeks, because the bayou serves as an active part of the city’s stormwater management plan. As water is being released from the full-to-bursting Addicks and Barker Reservoirs upstream—to make room in those reservoirs should another storm blow in—the water levels in the bayou will continue to run high. That’s where it could have a damaging effect on the landscape, McCready says, and the effects won’t be known until the water recedes entirely. “Because the water carries clay and silt that block out the sunlight, the grasses and lower vegetation might be impacted if they are submerged for long periods. And if you start losing those, you start losing the stability of these slopes. That’s the hardship for the park in a storm of this magnitude.”
Even as parts of the park remain under water, the way that it has weathered the storm makes it a poster child for resiliency. Much of the flood receded within days, and the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, which runs the park, was out en force—shoveling silt, hosing down grass, paths, and pavilions, and making the park ready for visitors again. Bikers and joggers are back in the upper trails, and have been since mere days after the rains stopped. But “we have to remind ourselves that this is a learning process,” McCready says. “You can engineer your way into resiliency with big heavy walls, but this park is a model to gauge what is the right amount of development and infrastructure, especially if this type of event is going to become more frequent.”
For Speck, it has made him rethink his approach to design for future projects. “We’re doing a project right now that has a flood plain adjacent to it, and the normal attitude is ‘Ok, follow all the rules,’ ” he says. “But now my attitude is: ‘Can we exceed those rules?’ ... Think of the heartbreak, the huge amounts of damage and repair that could be saved—we have to prepare for it.”
And Speck has seen that devastation up close: While he and his family were not impacted by the flooding from Harvey, he recalls helping his parents clean up after their house was flooded twice in 10 years. “It’s worse than a fire—there, everything is gone. But in a flood, it’s all still there, it’s just ruined,” he says. “It’s heartbreaking. And we as architects have the capability to avoid that heartbreak. It’s a really big factor we need to be taking into account—certainly in coastal areas, but in inland areas that are susceptible to drenching rains as well.”
In a sprawling city like Houston, there are certainly lessons to be learned. “We’re a city that has predicated economic success on encouraging development, but we need to weigh that against the potential harm and impact those strategies can have if they are unchecked,” McCready says. “These bayous provide enormous opportunities, not just for health and well-being, but also education. Just being able to go down and see the flood levels rise, and how a flat city in a large watershed area functions, raised awareness that this is part of a core development issue in the coming decades—and about policies that will make us successful.”
For Speck, a renewed focus on resilience and tighter building restrictions is a chance turn a hardship into an opportunity for the design community: “We can either complain and patch things up, or we can say, ‘This could fundamentally reshape architecture,’ ” he says. “This could reshape the way buildings meet the ground, the way we do land planning. This could be very positive.”
This is an expanded version of the article that appeared in print in the November 2017 issue.