Flood resilience should be high on your design agenda

Words:
Helen Castle

As climate change takes hold the planet is experiencing warmer temperatures and increased rainfall, requiring architects to develop expertise in designing for flood resilience

As we enter a new year and a new decade, the climate change crisis has reached an essential tipping point. The climate emergency is here. It has arrived: with bushfires in Australia and Typhoon Phanfone in the Philippines. In January, for the first time ever the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report was dominated by climate change. This is all compounded by reports of year-on-year and decade-on-decade increases in temperature. 

For UK architects, unpredictable weather patterns and increasing temperatures were previously something that happened elsewhere in the world, in regions such as the US – whether it was Hurricane Katrina wreaking havoc in New Orleans in 2005 or Hurricane Sandy striking New York in 2012.  In November, however, large swathes of Yorkshire, the Midlands and the south east of England were again struck by floods and it became apparent that architects, even in a temperate climate like the UK, are going to have to design for resilience while remaining mindful of a sustainable approach (as addressed in RIBA’s 2030 Climate Challenge) that will mitigate against continuing temperature rises.

The process of flood risk adaptation should not just be seen as a necessity, but as an opportunity and a catalyst through which to enhance and improve the quality of the built and natural environment

Designing for flood resilience

One person championing the pressing reality of flood risk in the UK is Ed Barsley, a specialist in environmental design in architecture. He highlights the issues: ‘One in six homes is at risk of flooding and this figure is set to double over the next 30 years’. He continues: ‘Resilient design plays a crucial role in ameliorating climate change. The process of reinstating buildings after a flood (for example removing damaged items, drying out and replacing or repairing the building fabric) uses a vast amount of energy and resources. With the frequency and severity of flood event set to increase as a result of climate change, we’ll see many properties flooded on multiple occasions and the “whole life carbon” cost of repair will be vast. Incorporating resilient design strategies into projects from the outset can be made to help reduce the exposure and vulnerability of communities and buildings to flooding. The knock-on effect is fewer areas affected, quicker recovery times and less damage or disruption in those that are flooded.’

He believes the process of flood risk adaptation should not just be seen as a necessity, but as an opportunity and a catalyst through which to enhance and improve the quality of the built and natural environment. In his book ‘Retrofitting for Flood Resilience: A Guide to Building and Community Design’, he emphasises that a solely reactive approach to recovery for areas affected by flooding is no longer a viable solution, as it leaves ‘many communities trapped in a repetitive cycle of recovery’. He also demonstrates how, when ‘working on a single property, street, community or wider masterplan, strategies for flood risk and resilience provide an opportunity to intervene and positively influence the way in which water in the built and natural environment is sustainably managed.’

  • Vulnerable fixtures and fittings…
    Vulnerable fixtures and fittings… Credit: From Ed Barsley Retrofitting for Flood Resilience
  • …and resilient fixtures and fittings showing how potential damage can be addressed through positioning and specification of materials.
    …and resilient fixtures and fittings showing how potential damage can be addressed through positioning and specification of materials. Credit: From Ed Barsley Retrofitting for Flood Resilience
  • A kitchen’s vulnerable fixtures and fittings…
    A kitchen’s vulnerable fixtures and fittings… Credit: From Ed Barsley Retrofitting for Flood Resilience
  • …and a resilient kitchen achieved by retrofitting.
    …and a resilient kitchen achieved by retrofitting. Credit: From Ed Barsley Retrofitting for Flood Resilience
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Barsley stresses that it is important to develop design strategies that respond to ‘different types of flood risk’ and ‘to suit each particular context’. ‘For example, a strategy that works for resilience to fluvial flooding may not suit a groundwater flood risk context. Flood resilient design should be a factor of consideration at whatever scale your working. It can influence material selection, the design of construction details, the position or type of utilities, the layout of a property, its key thresholds, and how flood risk is managed at the street, community and catchment scale.’

Whereas architects would once have lent on the knowledge and expertise of other design and construction professionals when working in areas vulnerable to flooding, Barsley emphasises that architects need ‘to be able to understand the key principles, terminology and strategies of flood resilient design so they can make the most of collaborations with those disciplines. Fed into the design process at an early stage, a rigorous understanding and consideration of how flood risk and water is managed on and off site can unlock enormous opportunities and potential. It can influence everything from the viability of the scheme to planning conditions, as well as its form, footings, datums, access, and which sustainable drainage strategies will work for future as well as existing climate conditions.’

It is apparent that ‘flood risk and resilience are becoming key design drivers in projects at all scales for both existing and newbuild context’. Barsley flags up BIG’s 'BIG U’ project in New York as an example of an architectural practice engaging with large-scale flood management, and Walter Menteth’s research into coastal resilience at Portsmouth.

More than a mouthpiece for flood resilient design, Barsley has researched and developed practical guidance for the profession: his book is designed as a resource for architects. It is packed with useful drawings and diagrams that detail how to retrofit existing buildings and communities as well as design strategies for new builds. For the RIBA, he has also created the 2018 Core CPD ‘Designing for Flood Resilience: Tips for Architects & Designers’ and a new webinar on ‘Property Level Strategies’.

Architects surfing on political will

Another significant voice in the climate change debate is Duncan Baker-Brown, author of ‘The Re-Use Atlas: A Designer’s Guide Towards a Circular Economy’, who will be talking with Barsley at RIBA Book Club on the climate change challenge at the end of February. He urges architects to act on the climate emergency by realising their significant role in the design and construction of buildings as ‘resource managers’, sourcing reusable and reused materials and components.

  • Diagram showing four design models for a circular economy developed as part of RSA’s research for ‘The Great Recovery’ programme, 2016. It highlights the importance of end-of-life implications being built into the design of buildings at concept design stage.
    Diagram showing four design models for a circular economy developed as part of RSA’s research for ‘The Great Recovery’ programme, 2016. It highlights the importance of end-of-life implications being built into the design of buildings at concept design stage.
  • Duncan Baker-Brown of BBM and University of Brighton students, Waste House, 2014. Located at the university's campus, the house is the first ‘carbon negative’ public building in Europe to be constructed from 90% waste, including surplus construction material and discarded plastic.
    Duncan Baker-Brown of BBM and University of Brighton students, Waste House, 2014. Located at the university's campus, the house is the first ‘carbon negative’ public building in Europe to be constructed from 90% waste, including surplus construction material and discarded plastic.
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For Baker-Brown, the ‘political’ tipping point in the UK took place much earlier – in the spring of last year, in April 2019 – when Extinction Rebellion led protests  during Parliament’s Recess and Greta Thunberg addressed activists in London’s Marble Arch. Now 75% of UK citizens live in local authorities that have declared a climate emergency. These local authorities are committing to highly ambitious zero net carbon targets in 2030 or 2035. This is where architects can be super useful to local authorities – if they change the way they practise by embracing resilience and re-use. The challenge for the profession is to ensure they are in a position to capture this nascent political will by tapping into resources, like Barsley’s work on flood resilience, and having the type of skills and expertise required in both sustainable and resilient design.


Ed Barsley and Duncan Baker-Brown are talking at the RIBA Book Club event ‘How can architects become part of the solution to the climate change challenge?’ on 28 February