When it comes to forward-thinking interior design, sustainability, it seems, is no longer enough. In the wake of the past few years—which have seen severe storms, arctic chills, widespread droughts and increasingly dire predictions about future climates—the focus of many designers is shifting toward resiliency.
Broadly speaking, “resilience,” in this sense, refers to a thing’s ability to function throughout, or to quickly regain functionality after, a disaster such as a hurricane or an earthquake, and by doing so prevent anything from minor inconveniences to major losses of life. Resilient design has implications for everything from infrastructure planning to the layout of interior spaces—the places where, after all, most people spend most of their time. This concept has been around for a while, but it really began to gain traction after Superstorm Sandy ravaged New York, New Jersey and Connecticut in late October 2012, causing widespread flooding, fires, power outages and other destruction totaling some $60 billion in damage. The National Hurricane Center estimates that Sandy was responsible for 159 deaths (other tallies vary), and though many were caused by drowning, others resulted from hypothermia due to lack of heat or carbon-monoxide poisoning from the use of portable generators—and both of these are hazards that, theoretically, smart resilient design could mitigate, if not do away with altogether.
That same year, architect and BFA Interior Design faculty member Gita Nandan, along with her partners in the design studio Thread Collective, built Trout House, a four-story mixed-use building on Troutman Street in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood that incorporates a number of resilient features. (Thread Collective has its offices on the first floor, Nandan’s partners live on the second, and the third and fourth are occupied by renters.) The interior finish materials—concrete, stainless steel, Brazilian ipe hardwood salvaged from the Coney Island boardwalk (much of which has been rebuilt, post-Sandy)—are extremely durable and water resistant. Moreover, each residential unit boasts a floor-through layout, recessed balcony and floor-to-ceiling windows, all of which provide a combination of natural light, shade and cross-ventilation. That, coupled with the 5.5-kilowatt solar panel array on the roof—which directly powers the building, rather than feeding back into the grid—minimizes reliance on the local electricity provider and on mechanical heating and cooling, thereby boosting the “passive survivability” of the building, or its ability to maintain critical functions in the event of utility-service disruptions. It also reduces the building’s carbon footprint, illustrating the link between resilience and sustainability.
“In 2014, we ran the air-conditioning for one month, and we turned the heat off in March and didn’t start it up again until mid-November,” says Nandan, who also helped New York City’s Building Resiliency Task Force revise the city’s building code after Sandy, and is currently working with the New York Rising Community Reconstruction Program to create a resilient plan for Red Hook, a Brooklyn neighborhood that was inundated during the 2012 storm.
Some aspects of Trout House’s design, and in resilient design practices in general, hark back to an earlier era. As in many parts of the world, New York may be experiencing more extreme weather events than ever before, thanks to manmade climate change. But cold winters and hot summers are hardly new to the region. And in the days before mechanical heating and cooling systems, builders managed seasonal temperature extremes through subtler means: positioning windows and ?? skylights to maximize natural light while controlling the heat that sunlight generates, creating adequate shade and allowing for cross-ventilation. “That’s the way they used to build,” says Illya Azaroff, a founding principal of +LAB Architect in Brooklyn and another BFA Interior Design faculty member. “And now we’re getting back to that.”
In other ways, resilient design is as cutting-edge as it gets. Azaroff, who advises a variety of city, state and federal agencies on disaster preparedness and recovery, prefers the phrase “bouncing forward” to “bouncing back” when it comes to resiliency, and emphasizes the need to plan ahead for what the latest weather models can tell us about what the future might hold. That kind of anticipatory approach is already filtering into building codes, requiring designers, for example, to reallocate interior space in creative ways. In New York, spaces that house mechanical equipment must now be raised above the floodplain, and the ground floors of waterfront buildings can no longer be used for living space. For her senior thesis project, one of Nandan’s former students, Ting Yu Tsai (BFA 2014 Interior Design), envisioned a wetland museum on Manhattan’s Lower East Side waterfront, the lowest level of which included a floating dock system designed to accommodate the tides of the East River—and rising sea levels.
There has also been a revolution in resilient materials and technologies. Floodgates that drop down from within door frames can limit flooding, while new mold-resistant finishes can stave off a serious health risk when flooding does occur. When +LAB was hired to make a West Village townhouse “disaster durable,” he says, Azaroff not only installed an emergency backup generator and battery system, he also replaced all of the windows with hurricane-proof glass—capable of withstanding the impact of a nine-pound two-by-four traveling at 34 miles an hour—and installed movable internal walls that can fold back, allowing air to flow from one side of the building to the other and encouraging passive temperature control should the building’s mechanicals fail.
Since weather and geology vary from one locale to another, so must resilient design. That was evident when Ambar Margarida (BFA 2009 Interior Design), an associate in interior design at Spacesmith, the architecture and interior design firm founded by Jane Smith, chair of SVA’s BFA Interior Design program, got involved in designing a seven-story office building in an earthquake zone outside of the U.S. According to Margarida, resiliency concerns guided the building’s design: a large sunscreen, for example, will let natural light in but diffuse its heat, addressing both lighting and cooling concerns in the event of power outages, while internal courtyards that extend to the cellar level will not only ensure illumination throughout the structure but also provide a sense of connection to the outdoors if occupants are stuck inside for an extended period. In addition, Margarida and her colleagues were careful to specify bracing details for the furniture, attaching top-heavy pieces like bookcases to specially reinforced walls to keep them from toppling if a tremor hits—just one more example of the many factors that go into making a space safe even under the most hazardous conditions. “It’s very considered, thoughtful work,” she says.
Indeed, designers and clients alike should think of resiliency not as an onerous obligation, but as both a creative challenge and a requisite for a well-crafted space. “My hope is that, in five to 10 years, these practices will not only be industry-standard, but expected by residential and commercial building owners,” Nandan says. ∞