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Designing for Disaster Opens at National Building Museum

Posted by Christina B. Farnsworth

May 15, 2014 1:05:00 PM

Floods, earthquakes, sinkholes, tornadoes, hurricanes—we live in a world full of the potential for disaster.

Designing for Disaster at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., opened Sunday, May 11 and will be open until mid-August 2015.

National Building Museum

“Natural disasters can impact any of us,” the exhibit introduction reads, “anywhere, at any time. In 2012, the financial toll in the United States alone exceeded $100 billion, and the loss of life and emotional toll is immeasurable. No region of the country is immune—112 events in 32 states were declared natural disasters in the U.S. during 2012.”

Designing for Disaster  “examines how we assess risks from natural hazards and how we can create policies, plans, and designs yielding safer, more disaster-resilient communities.”

If you are unable to see the exhibit in person, you can easily delve into designing for disaster and disaster mitigation on the Building Museum’s Web site. There are many resources on the site including “the steps you can take in your own home and community to prepare for disasters, remain safe, and prevent damage."

The exhibition is rife “with stories, video, objects, and interactive tools from around the nation viewable at the National Building Museum Online. The exhibition explores "new solutions for, and historical responses to, a range of natural hazards, including earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, storm surge, flooding, sea level rise, tsunamis, and wildfires.

Designing for Disaster shows disaster mitigation "as an evolving science and highlights the tools and strategies that today’s planners, engineers, designers, emergency managers, scientists, environmentalists, and various business and community leaders are investigating and adapting to build safer, more disaster-resilient communities.”

The exhibit even has its own blog MitigationNation.

The Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) is an exhibit participant with video and photographs from testing conducted at its Research Center.

“IBHS conducts objective, scientific research to identify, evaluate, and promote effective ways to strengthen homes, businesses, and communities against natural disasters and other causes of property damage,” says IBHS president and CEO.Julie Rochman, “Translating our research into actionable information for consumers is critical, which is one of the reasons we’re very enthusiastic about being part of this exciting new exhibit.”

Videos highlight the Institute’s FORTIFIED construction standards.”A pair of full-scale, two-story, 1,300 sq. ft. houses were placed next to each other in IBHS’ massive test chamber –  one was built using conventional construction standards common in the Midwest, and the other was built to IBHS’ FORTIFIED for Safer Living® standards for the Midwest.Both houses were subjected to the same severe thunderstorm conditions, and while the house built using FORTIFIED standards (which made it safer and stronger) suffered minimal damage, the house built using conventional standards was reduced to a pile of rubble.” There is a dramatic video on the Web site

Artifacts from several past natural disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, the Waldo Canyon wildfire in Colorado, and the earthquake that hit the Washington, DC, area a couple of years ago, strongly convey – and personalize – the destructive power of nature. Multimedia components include profiles of experts on various types of disasters, recordings from memorable disasters, and interactive displays that will allow visitors to test their disaster preparedness by choosing the best recourse in disaster scenarios.

The exhibition closes with images and stories of everyday people who have taken steps, both large and small, to safeguard their homes and families against disasters, and visitors will be challenged to take similar actions.

One of the resources is an online interview with Museum curator Chrysanthe Broikos and her team, Christine Canabou and Caitlin Bristol.

“Disaster mitigation is anything you can do long-term to prevent or minimize the impact of a natural disaster. FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) includes it as one of four components of emergency management: preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation. The goal of Designing for Disaster is to zero in on the crucial roles design, building, and planning can play in disaster mitigation.”

The exhibit “asks fundamental questions about where and how we build as a society. As we face an increasing number of destructive and deadly natural disasters, we are re-engaging these fundamental questions in very healthy ways. Should we have the right to build exactly what we want, where we want, no matter the risks? Should we give more thought to the long-term viability and protection of the structures and communities we build? In many respects, we are redefining acceptable levels of risk. What we thought was safe in the past is no longer safe enough, and we are now taking steps to increase resiliency in our buildings and communities,” Broikos says.

Broikos views the exhibition as a continuing extension of “ the National Building Museum's well-established interest in sustainability.” Previous exhibitions have included  the 2006/2007 exhibit Green House and the 2008/2009 exhibition Green Community.

“In the past,” Broikos says, “disaster mitigation largely occurred after a disaster, after some destructive event took place when it was understood that mitigation could lessen the effects next time. With Designing for Disaster, we want to demonstrate how designing resilient structures and communities can and should happen before disaster strikes. Many lessons have been learned from individual events, such as recent destructive storms like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. These lessons need to be shared with citizens and planners in other communities before the next storm hits to lessen both the human toll and the economic costs.”

“We consciously chose the phrase ‘designing for’ rather than ‘designing against’ disaster,” Broikos says..

Throughout the exhibition, the museum presents “real world objects, video, images, and interactive components to demonstrate the truly vast range of design and building solutions being developed in the field of disaster mitigation.” “We want to show how these can vary depending on hazard type,” Broikos says.” For example, in the earthquakes section of the exhibition, you’ll encounter a buckling restrained brace, which is a next-generation bracing system that can absorb destructive energy during a quake. You'll also find a viscous damper, which is something like a shock absorber.”

Designing for Disaster is different depending on the disaster vulnerability. Included in the exhibition is a FEMA-specified safe room designed for surviving tornadoes, Member of the International Masonry Institute and the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers built the safe room.

Though no place is safe from disaster, California, Florida and Texas top the list of Presidential Disaster Declarations. For California, risks include earthquakes, drought, wildfires and mudslides. For Texas, the disaster list includes wildfires, tornadoes, floods and hurricanes,

Preparing for disaster starts at the individual level and starts with a personal plan as well as an emergency bag and emergency supplies.

“Creating a plan forces us to think about some simple questions that will arise during a disaster,” Boikos says: “What do you really need to take with you? Where will you go? How will you communicate with family and neighbors? is a good online resource for creating a plan. The exhibition concludes with items for an emergency kit and "go bag." Kits include extra batteries and water. Other useful elements include a NOAA weather radio and MREs (meals ready to eat). The radios cost around $50, are manually or battery powered and tune in to NOAA Weather Radio.

Exhibit sponsors include Lafarge North America; The Home Depot Foundation; American Red Cross; Andersen Corporation; The Nature Conservancy; AECOM; Center for Disaster Philanthropy; National Endowment for the Arts; ASSA ABLOY; Construction Specialties, Inc.; National Fire Protection Association; United Technologies Corporation; Federal Emergency Management Agency; Kingdom of the Netherlands; Association of State Floodplain Managers and the Association of State Floodplain Managers Foundation; Florida International University; Nixon Peabody LLP; Rebuild by Design; RenaissanceRe Risk Sciences Foundation; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP; Arup; and URS Corporation. 

Science Channel is the exclusive Television Media Sponsor, and the Washington Post is a media partner.

Broikos hopes that visitors in person and online will come away “with a sense of empowerment—there are steps you can take to protect your families, friends, neighbors, and property”


Photo: New Orleans, Louisiana, 2005. Flood waters in New Orleans, located below sea level, were slow to dissipate after levees failed during Hurricane Katrina, causing billions in damages. Courtesy NOAA Photo Library, National Weather Service Collection, Lieut. Commander Mike Moran, NOAA Corps, NMAO/AOC.

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