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  • Writer's pictureBen Williams

Vulnerable Coastlines in a Warming World: Designing Structures to Withstand the New Reality

Climate change is having significant impacts on coastlines around the world and the coast of New England is no exception. Rising sea levels, the frequency and intensity of storm surges, exacerbated coastal erosion, and increased inundation and flooding are all threats to the homes and offices along the South Shore. To combat the inevitable, architects are taking innovative approaches to design and modify residences on our coast to address the challenges posed by climate change and ensure Massachusetts homeowners get to enjoy their ocean views for years to come. 

Elevated Living Spaces

One of the most straightforward ways to address rising sea levels is to elevate the entire structure above potential flood levels. This can be achieved through pilings or other elevated foundation systems.

Raised Mechanical Equipment

By placing mechanical equipment, such as the furnace, electrical utilities and plumbing, on elevated floors, homeowners can reduce the likelihood they will be damaged by floodwater and sparing potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs. 

Intentional Ground Floors

Make the ground floor a spartan space, favoring play rooms for kids, parking garages, or storage spaces, while the upper floors are designated as the primary living spaces. Taking this approach will limit damages in the event of flooding, allowing residents to return to their homes quicker. 

Breakaway Structures

Some bold architects are designing buildings with breakaway features. In the event of a severe storm surge, certain parts of the structure can be designed to detach to allow water to flow through, reducing the risk of damage.

Floating Homes

In areas with high flood risk, residences that are essentially floating structures are replacing the traditional homes that we know. These structures are buoyant and designed to rise with the water level. This type of structure works best for seasonal flooding when high water remains multiple days, not storm surges where water comes in quick and leaves quickly.

Flexible and Resilient Materials

Using materials that can withstand exposure to saltwater and are more resilient to storm damage is crucial. This includes corrosion-resistant materials, impact-resistant glass, and other durable finishes.

Natural Barriers and Buffer Zones

Properties designed with natural barriers such as dunes, mangroves, or vegetation can help absorb and dissipate the energy of storm surges.

Sustainable Drainage Systems

Incorporating sustainable drainage systems like rain gardens, permeable pavements, and green roofs can help manage stormwater and reduce flooding risks.

Modular and Prefabricated Construction

Modular and prefabricated construction methods can expedite the building process and allow for greater precision in constructing structures that can withstand extreme weather events.

Design for Passive Resilience

This involves designing buildings to require minimal energy input for heating, cooling, and lighting. By doing so, they remain habitable even during power outages.

Community Planning and Zoning

By collaborating with urban planners and local governments, architects can establish zoning regulations and building codes that take into account climate change risks. This includes requirements for elevation, setback distances from shorelines, and use of resilient materials.

Energy-Efficient Design

Incorporating energy-efficient features, such as well-insulated walls, roofs, and windows, can not only reduce energy consumption but also enhance the resilience of a building during extreme weather events.

It's important to note that every coastal area has its unique challenges and opportunities, so we must consider the specific context and local conditions when designing residences. Additionally, interdisciplinary collaboration between architects, engineers, urban planners, environmental scientists, and policymakers is essential to create effective solutions for coastal resilience.

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