Rising up against climbing sea levels

Hampton University

Dr. Mason Andrews (first on the right) poses with four of her Hampton University architecture students after the Virginia AIA Forum at the Slover Library in Norfolk.

To further assist waterlogged communities, Hampton University joins the National Resilience Initiative

Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia, is one of the newest members of the National Resilience Initiative (NRI), a nationwide network of resilient design studios under the umbrella of the Architects Foundation. Dr. Mason Andrews, associate professor of architecture, and Dr. Eric Sheppard, dean of the School of Engineering and Technology, have been spearheading projects in nearby communities already impacted by rising sea levels. They've fully embraced this opportunity to join a nationwide program aimed at tackling those issues and more.

Talk about the university's ongoing resilience initiatives and how they contributed to your selection.

Dr. Mason Andrews: In 2014 we received a small grant to take a look at adaptation and mitigation strategies for an existing neighborhood; we chose Chesterfield Heights, primarily African-Americans with low to moderate income, a neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places with families that've been there for generations. Without really knowing exactly what we were doing, we began making contact with the community and set up a series of interviews. We started exploring local creek beds, stormwater drainage, how the water undercuts the shoreline. One of the options we considered was raising a whole block while still preserving the urban fabric and life of the community. Within two years, after sharing our work with city staffers, they were so impressed that they bundled our project into a massive grant from HUD's National Disaster Resilience Competition. It was an extraordinary turnaround for student work.

Dr. Eric Sheppard: The land around us is sinking. We're in a water-surrounded area; Hampton University sits on a peninsula. So we depend on the water, but it's also a potential threat. And what's coming won't be as fast as a hurricane, for the most part, but it's inevitable and it's going to last forever. So I'm very happy that our architecture students took on this role of working with communities and figuring out ways to remediate ongoing issues. Some communities in Norfolk are feeling the impact already; we have to find ways to help people move locations, or to live with it. We're hoping that there will be a lot of opportunities to interact with other studios so we can learn from what they're working on, start long-term prep for sea-level rise, and determine what to do in the next 20 years when more serious issues arise.

Is it possible to quantify the benefits of introducing resilient design at the university level?

Andrews: It's huge, for them as both architects and human beings. Learning how to listen is something that doesn't come naturally to 20-year-olds; this is also an important time in our students' development, when they are finding out what is unique about themselves. Right now there is a need to go out and talk to real people about real problems. What we're doing is creating a safe place for people to talk: If the city and its residents show up, the machine starts to churn. With a group of students who are really invested in what they're doing, new things can be imagined.

Our department has a commitment to community engagement and working within existing neighborhoods, underserved and otherwise. There's been something about youthful exuberance during the design process that seems to make everybody feel pretty good; we're really making some headway. For whatever it's worth, I think the impulse housing this effort in architecture schools is appropriate; it's not really architecture that we're doing, but there's something about architectural thought processes that seem to be really good at digging up new solutions, no matter the focus.

Sheppard: In this country, we lost track of the fact that we're good at making things. That's what made us powerful, that and the diversity of the people solving problems. It's sad that we're being forced to be resilient, but it is a good reminder to engineering students and architecture students: Your main job is to solve challenges for the world, make lives better, and improve the health of communities.

Our students may not settle down here, but Hampton University will always be here, our communities will be here, and therefore we have an obligation to the surrounding area. We're also a historically black school; sometimes minorities serving institutions aren't expected to step up and be leaders, so I applaud us for doing that.

What comes next for Hampton University, in regard to resilient design?

Andrews: It's very important to us that we work on specific projects district-wide. We prefer to look at districts with issues in the existing fabric of the neighborhoods—and we keep kicking up new technological ideas, new research needs, new policy needs—but we need to stay in the design world. We want to keep up our focus on design, and keep building a network where more people are looking at research-based ideas that we've identified.

Steve Cimino is the digital content manager at the AIA.

Image credits

Hampton University

Hampton University

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