Resiliency in design, defined briefly as the ability to quickly recover from disruption, has become a foremost consideration for clients looking to mitigate risk and a changing climate. This is especially of concern in urbanized areas where potentially overlapping disasters can cause catastrophic results, including loss of life and property damage. For clients at lab research institutes and campuses, the possibility of losing years worth of experiments is an additional concern. Many wrongly assume that resiliency measures are costly. The truth is that thoughtful planning—particularly in new build projects—can keep resilient design manageable. And when you factor in the protections that resilient design offers—not only for buildings, but also for the scientific research conducted in them—it’s clear that the practice is invaluable and something that I strongly urge lab leadership to consider.
Resiliency is situational
While it’s not a research facility, the Harborside Campus at Johnson and Wales Univ. in Providence, R.I., offers an informative example of a client utilizing a transformational capital project to counter, through resiliency, unique geographic vulnerability. JWU's Harborside Campus is located 3-miles south of the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier, which protects downtown Providence, R.I., from storm surges and flooding. Harborside lies directly adjacent to Narragansett Bay on former industrial infill land just five feet above sea level with ocean within 0.5 miles on two sides and houses JWU's flagship, world-renowned culinary arts program. When the university outgrew its dated facilities, a lack of available parcels at its downtown campus meant that development would need to happen on this high-potential, but highly vulnerable site.
Designing what would become the LEED-Gold certified Cuisinart Center for Culinary Excellence (CCCE) was the task shared with my colleagues at Cambridge, Mass.-based Tsoi/Kobus & Associates (TK&A). We were selected as the architect thanks in part to our ability to deliver high-performing research facilities for top tier colleges and universities all over the country. While a culinary arts facility does not immediately scream "cutting edge lab design" in the traditional sense, the infrastructure to meet the CCCE's desire for thirty simultaneous teaching labs/classrooms with everything from a brewery to kitchens equipped with up to 20 commercial cooking stations demanded the same level of attention to mechanical systems, resource conservation and spatial efficiency as any top tier academic lab, and lessons from the project are certainly applicable to the lab/research sector.
Integrated design the key to resiliency
During programming and conceptual design the question of how to responsibly place JWU's investment on a site so vulnerable to hurricanes, flooding and storm surge was unavoidable. Some measures had been incorporated at Harborside over the years, such as elevating student housing upon a plinth five additional feet above grade; yet, this decision—made years before Hurricane Katrina forced updates to FEMA storm surge maps—was not enough to mitigate 21st-century vulnerability. Updated FEMA maps estimated Harborside storm surge heights up to 14-ft above sea level.
The integrated team began schematic design by placing critical program elements—classrooms and equipment—above the 14-ft datum. This resulted in the first level/mezzanine becoming a "soft" zone for non-critical programming—lobby, storage, parking and non-critical MEP equipment—that could become disrupted during an event without compromising the integrity of the building as a whole. Upper levels housed all critical programs: classrooms, equipment and finishes/furnishings, while essential MEP systems were securely anchored to the rooftop.
Of course, these efforts did not entirely resolve the threat of storm surge. Buildings firmly anchored to the ground exacerbate the impact of wave forces upon the structure; however, since the "heavy"—and crucially important—elements of the building were elevated, the team began thinking of the structure like a pier, where water flows around columns, reducing the area upon which destructive wave forces can produce structural failure. The "sacrificial" first floor features breakaway panels between columns on all sides to achieve the "pier" concept. These panels, air and water tight when in place, are held up by clips that fail upon surge-level forces. The idea of "fail fast/fail cheap" is at play here: After an event, the university can quickly recover, repair and replace panels with new clips. Certainly the client hopes to never experience such a situation, yet, the solution is a cost-effective, reasonable and calculated response to a potential reality which thoughtfully balances today's means, future projections, the original budget and the vision of the client for a world class facility.
There are aesthetic benefits, too
When resilient design is done right, it offers a chance not only to protect a building, but to create a celebration of place by including desirable aesthetic attributes, too.
Elevating the Cuisinart Center on stilts for protection gave the opportunity to add green space and bioswales that connect it on multiple levels to grade. By mitigating the existing asphalt (which was 100% impervious) we enjoyed the extra benefits of reducing polluting runoff into the bay and introducing campus green space.
Also, instead of landfilling the existing asphalt rubble offsite, the team used it to construct a mound that partially elevates and protects the building while also accommodating buried cisterns to hold reused rooftop rainwater for irrigation and flushing. This mound is covered in vegetation to create a natural amphitheater overlooking a new, tree-lined campus quadrangle. This major gesture regarding the architecture, systems, and resiliency creates a dominant feature on a ruthlessly flat site, giving students a fun place to gather with easy access to building entry points at both mezzanine and grade levels.
In the case of the Cuisinart Center for Culinary Excellence, positioning resiliency at the forefront of design considerations enabled the team to come to a thoughtful solution that did not require substantial funds and had the added advantage of introducing unexpected aesthetic improvements, too.
Our experience with Johnson & Wales Univ. has inspired discussion of resiliency in our talks with clients in the laboratory research arena, whose facilities are also often located in high-density, high-risk areas and whose work is highly sensitive and requires careful stewardship and protection. Thankfully they are recognizing that investment in resiliency strategies is affordable and offers a host of benefits, including insurance that future disasters won’t destroy decades of hard work and important discoveries.