Written by Steven Burke, Erin McNally, and Sherry Yang
Hurricane Sandy left a devastating and lasting impact on much of the Northeast in October of 2012. New York City was among the places hit the hardest, and the road to rebuilding will be long and challenging. As the damaged infrastructure and communities are pieced back together, society is challenged with rethinking the current paradigms of building and infrastructure design in order to create new models that can better adapt and respond to the threat of extreme weather in the future.
The word resiliency has emerged as the new gold standard for designing the built environment. Its meaning may be interpreted as design that not only maintains self-sufficiency throughout extreme environmental scenarios, (e.g. heat waves, power outages, extreme storm events, etc.) but also allows communities to quickly recover in the aftermath of such an event. Projections for rising seas and increased annual incidences of heat waves as a result of climate change further compound the importance of approaching the rebuilding process in an innovative and holistic manner.
It is within this context that a group of Columbia Alumni, including two graduates of the Master of Science in Sustainability Management program – Steven Burke (’12) and Erin McNally (’12) – banded together to collaborate on a resilient and sustainable design aimed at rebuilding a single-family home that was destroyed in the devastation that Hurricane Sandy wrought. In addition to Steven and Erin, the team also included Sherry Xuan Yang from Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, Andrew Salter, an M. Arch. graduate from the Rhode Island School of Design, and Mike Day, an experienced builder and contractor with familiarity in post-Sandy construction along the New Jersey coastline. The team took on this task as participants in the Urban Green Council‘s R3build Design Competition. All team members except Mike Day met during a special weekend design workshop in October, 2012, as part Prof. Lynnette Widder’s course Responsiveness and Resilience in the Built Environment.
The team’s mission was to design a resilient, energy efficient, environmentally sensitive, and economically viable model home on a Breezy Point waterfront lot where the original home stood, prior to Hurricane Sandy. The competition provided an extensive list of constraints within which each team had to formulate their proposal for the R3build home. A few of the challenging parameters included the requirement for an individually itemized materials budget within $150,000; a narrow lot with only a 15 foot width for buildable floor area; sensitivity to the neighborhood aesthetic; adherence to LEED for Homes v4 Gold certification; and the ability to make the home scalable and modular so it could potentially be redeployed as a community strategy.
The team spent many hours considering how to create the optimal layout given the tight restrictions of the site. Aligning the most important mechanical equipment along a casted east wall creates a protective ‘trunk’ from which the services could extend into each floor. By concentrating the equipment and services in this way, the other three walls were able to be more open to provide airy living spaces and the ability to service various sizes of floors as needed. The trunk and branch analogy of the design maintains the critical reliability of the mechanical services without letting the functional aspects of the design overtake the architecture.
Passive design was a guiding principle, keeping in mind that using the natural exposure of the site to sun and wind would not only keep down energy bills, but provide comfort in the event of a power outage. All of the main mechanical systems of the house were chosen with efficiency and resiliency in mind and minimize the number of systems that require traditional electricity input. Introducing a rooftop solar array ensures that the residents could be comfortable and sheltered despite interruptions in grid services and in typical day to day operations while also contributing to the affordable energy costs of the home.
Possibly the most notable single piece of equipment was a specialized inverter for the solar array that could act as a “microgrid”. During a typical day with no interruptions on the utility grid, the inverter feeds the electricity produced by the solar panels into the grid; however, during a power outage the inverter works in tandem with a small battery bank to divert electricity directly into the home to power key appliances. This is a new technology and a capability that a regular inverter does not have.
A rainwater catchment cistern was designed to feed the plumbing fixtures of the home, with enough surplus for a hydroponic system if the future occupants decided to invest in one. Last but not least, the house employed a hydronic radiant floor heating system, which can not only be up to 30 percent more efficient than a traditional forced air system, but could be looped into a solar thermal array if the budget allowed.
The home’s prefabricated and well-insulated wall panels and fibrous cement panel exterior cladding are materials that are durable, scalable, modular, and able to fit most any aesthetic that the homeowner wished. The ultimate vision was that the home, which the team dubbed “ROOT3D”, could be deployed in a modular rebuilding process throughout an entire community to form a largely energy independent neighborhood. Berms and swales featuring native vegetation would weave adjacent properties together to create a soft edge that protects the community from incoming floodwaters while also providing a natural dune habitat for wildlife.
The team ended up being selected as top 5 finalists among over 20 international competition teams, and walked away earning People’s Choice Award the night of the event by garnering the most votes as a favorite from event attendees. The multi-disciplinary team demonstrated that designing for challenging environments such as those in Breezy Point as well as many other climactically complex sites requires the collaboration and efforts of all the fields so that the solution is comprehensive for all the aspects of rebuilding a community.