Houston after Harvey: What can architects do?

Flooded homes in Houston after Hurricane Harvey

A neighborhood near Lake Houston, where homes and cars were decimated by the flooding that followed Hurricane Harvey.

The executive director of AIA Houston provides an update post-Hurricane Harvey and warns other communities at risk to prepare for the worst

Hurricane Harvey was one of the most devastating storms to ever hit the United States, affecting hundreds of thousands of families in Houston and other towns throughout South Texas. Rusty Bienvenue is the executive director of AIA Houston, the AIA chapter most directly besieged by the storm. As his city and its residents wait for the waters to recede, Bienvenue spoke with AIA about how Houston’s architects are getting involved, emphasizing the need for other cities and towns to prepare for disasters beyond their existing worst-case scenarios.

What is the situation like right now in Houston, and how are architects getting involved?

Rusty Bienvenue: We’re still in rescue mode. The water hasn’t receded in many parts of the city. At AIA Houston, it’s compounded by the fact that our two offices were underwater, so we’re trying to recover our own organization while also figuring out how to best assist the community.

AIA Houston has been serving the community in flood-related efforts for a long time. We have held a number of forums at our convention center, attended by roughly a thousand people total from across the spectrum, dealing with flood-related issues. Until now, we’ve primarily focused on storm surge.

It’s slow going, though; we just bought a new space downtown and are almost finished building it out. Our current space hadn’t flooded in the last 11 years, and though the new space was in a floodplain, we had our architects and engineers design some really nice flood mitigation that we had hoped to use as a demonstration: “This is how architects design for a flood zone.” Unfortunately, the building wasn’t completed in time; there were gaps all along the façade, and it took on four-and-a-half feet of water. There’s no flood insurance on a construction site, even in a flood zone, so we have to start over.

Figuring out what we’re going to do next, for both ourselves and the community, has been daunting and paralyzing. How do you address something this massive in an effective way? 156,000 homes in Harris County alone flooded; that’s just in one county, and this affected 50 counties. The last thing we want to do is tackle it in some way that doesn’t make a difference or that we don’t have the volunteers or the money for.

For starters, we’re already working with AIA National, training people through the Safety Assessment Program and evaluating buildings. Not in Houston yet, unfortunately, because you still can’t get around the whole city. But in Corpus Christi and other towns in South Texas, we’re already on the ground.

There’s been a lot of talk about what Houston could’ve “done differently” to prefer for such a storm. In your opinion, what could the city have done?

Bienvenue: In Houston, we have been building for the worst-case scenario for a long time. This was far worse than the worst-case scenario. Nothing has been seen like this, anywhere. There have been a lot of news outlets that have been critical of Houston, blaming rampant development, saying we’re developing in the wrong way, that there are no green spaces. There is not a city in the world that could’ve taken on this amount of water and survived unscathed.

This was unprecedented; I’ve seen it compared to several weeks of the flow of Niagara Falls, or a week of the flow of the Mississippi River. We could’ve potentially mitigated it a bit, but the people in houses with water up to their chests, even if we did everything exactly right, they’d have water up to their chests anyway.

“In Houston, we have been building for the worst-case scenario for a long time. This was far worse than the worst-case scenario. Nothing has been seen like this, anywhere.”

The rebuild is going to be equally unprecedented and debilitating. Normally when a hurricane hits, first there is wind damage then flood damage. Homeowners insurance steps in at that point and covers the wind damage only. It doesn’t apply to flood damage, however; you need a special flood policy. I would bet that 80 or 90 percent of the flooded structures in Houston did not have flood insurance, because they weren’t in a flood zone or the house was paid for and they weren’t required to by a mortgage lender. That’s going to be an enormous problem: people will not have insurance to fix their houses.

What can architects do, right now, to help spark change and lessen the impact of the next storm?

Bienvenue: Some of the criticisms about how Houston is designed are valid, especially in regards to how the reservoirs are designed in the west part of Houston. They were designed at a time when the city didn’t reach that far; now people have built houses in the flood zone. That needs to be addressed.

Though it’s correct to say that Houston doesn’t have a zoning code, it’s not correct to say the city doesn’t have land use regulations. Strengthening those is something that will be done; they’re becoming less of a city-by-city issue and more of a regional issue, especially as the storms get bigger. We’ve already had conversations with our state component on how to attack these things on a state-wide basis, to bring all the codes together in a way that makes sense. None of that would’ve prevented what happened here, but it’s an opportunity to protect against smaller storms.

What lessons can you share for AIA members and chapters in the potential path of future storms?

Bienvenue: Accept this as reality. It’s not a “new reality,” though, because this is not new. Storms have been getting steadily worse; Katrina was 12 years ago, and I can’t even name all the ones in between. Wake up, people. It’s not a new reality, but it is the reality on the ground now. We will have storms the size of which we can’t fathom, and we need to design accordingly.

To support AIA Houston, donate to the GoFundMe campaign to help rebuild Architecture Center Houston. For more on how architects prepare for disasters and how AIA is responding to Hurricane Harvey, get daily updates from our Disaster Assistance Program.

Steve Cimino is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers architecture, sustainability, and health.

Image credits

Flooded homes in Houston after Hurricane Harvey

Win McNamee/Getty Images

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