Perspective: Hurricane Harvey and Designing for Climate Change

by Belle Carroll
Belle is an architecture student at Rice University in Houston, TX, interning with Bohlin Cywinski Jackson in San Francisco.

Moments during the Global Climate Strike in San Francisco with Bohlin Cywinski Jackson staff. Photos by Priya Mara.

On September 20, 2019 I walked out of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson’s San Francisco office with my colleagues to join the Global Climate Strike. Seeing thousands of people bring attention to environmental issues inspired hope. It also allowed me to reflect on how climate change has influenced my perspective, particularly as an aspiring architect.

In 2017, Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Texas; it was the second week of my third year at Rice University. With classes barely begun, the rain initially seemed like an excuse to cancel class, catch up with friends, and a release from the suffocating August climate.

The first-day impact of Hurricane Harvey from a student’s perspective didn’t seem any different than any other storm. For those unfamiliar with Houston, the city is a flat concrete jungle intersected by four major bayous that overflow constantly. Rice University is located between the Medical Center, the Museum district, and Buffalo Bayou in a part of the city that has undergone extensive engineered flood mitigation improvements in the last decade. The campus floods every time it rains. It is designed to mitigate flooding for the neighborhood bayou by retaining as much water as possible.

Rain came down from the sky for the next three days, greatly exceeding 100-year-flood-level expectations. After three days of no school, the student body became restless. There was growing eagerness to leave the campus that had faired so well and help those who had not been as fortunate. A student-led task force called R-HAT, the Rice Harvey Action Team, opened lines of communication with community centers across Houston to assess how best to help.

Hundreds of students were mobilized. The city needed assistance checking in people who sought refuge at the George R. Brown Convention Center, distributing basic supplies like clothing and food and tending to pets appearing at shelters around the city.

Once the rain stopped and it was safe for people to move around in the city again, R-HAT connected volunteers with families who had asked for help to salvage what was left of their homes. The city had looked surreal under water, but it looked even more surreal with the contents of homes poured out onto the sidewalks. Mounds of debris lined the streets and reached so high that you could no longer see the ranch style homes behind them.

We began by adding to these piles: removing any furniture or objects that had been submerged in the muddy water and cutting out drywall and insulation to stop mold from taking over the integral structure of the houses. The experience of salvaging the remains of a home was incredibly intimate with each family. What “home” had meant to them and how the hurricane had so dramatically changed it was a recurring topic of conversation.

Though school re-opened a short while after, lectures resumed and replaced the time we had spent walking around neighborhoods offering a helping hand. But the questions raised by the hurricane relating to climate change, sustainable living, and designing for the city’s future became an important part of my education.

A year later, I took a seminar on urban planning for flood prone cities like Houston. I proposed a buy-out scheme that would densify neighborhoods while pulling back away from the flood plain and, by doing so, create new park space and natural flood mitigation infrastructure. Though a radical proposal for Houston, the seminar taught me that designing with climate change in mind is the future of architecture.

Designing buildings that inspire connection and wonder in every person who experiences them.

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