Knowing Sandy

October 26, 2017

By: Susan P Bristol, AIA, NJ PP, LEED AP                                                     

SPB Architecture LLC, Rocky Hill, NJ


(Adjunct Professor at NJIT, CoA+D, School of Architecture)



Architecture, having been consumed by the movement toward sustainability in recent decades, now has a new mandate. Resilience.  In post-Sandy NJ (and NJ River basins since the mid 20th century) the questions have been: How do we control water? How do we defend against other natural forces that can and have wreaked devastation? What are our policies toward construction on sites that have flooded multiple times? How do we build for future disasters to protect expensive infrastructure, architecture and neighborhood investment? What is the role of the architect in mitigating disaster?

Now the big question now is: how do we live with water?

Those of us in the ‘trenches’ of designing, building, planning, engineering and construction have been operating on multiple levels. In my Garden State Studio resilient design course at NJIT in Spring of 2013, I began using the term ‘Un-Building’ just after Sandy to think about treading more lightly on fragile (barrier island) ground, in floodplain redevelopment, in dense neighborhoods and coastal constructions. This does not mean do not build or do not re-build, it means that we need to examine our footprints: our constructed and environmental footprints.  If you think that Un-building is a provocative term for a profession that depends on building, then you are correct. It is meant to alert us to the conflicts embedded in our profession and to make us think.


The first thing that people think about resiliency after a storm, is that we need to update the building codes (government) and the second thing is how we meet those codes (property owners, architects, engineers, contractors). As I reminded folks at the 2013 Mayor’s Summit (sponsored by the Center for Resilient Design at NJIT), building codes are a minimum, FEMA codes do not even consider sea level rise, and best practice design must take many other factors into account.  Architects are well positioned to add nuance, insight, resiliency and vision to projects beyond the minimal codes.  However, some of those factors, it turns out, include human fragility and emotions.  Recently, the Nobel prize winner in Economics was announced.  Professor Rickard Thaler’s field is behavioral economics. Architects could learn something by his attention to the human component which is not rational.


We cannot assume that experiencing Sandy was a ‘wake-up call’ for everyone.  In fact, the emergency recovery mode pushes some to focus on ‘return to normal’, rebuild as before, make it look like nothing happened.  Our professional inclination is to do it better, do it differently, use design to integrate new codes into our work.  At our best, we

also have the capacity to look beyond our individual lot, property, or client.  This is when Architecture has the potential to absorb planning principles and mature beyond our own narrow interests.  A person or community stuck in the emergency mode will never make it to the long-range planning mode or allow themselves (or their town) to engage in conversations about the future.


I began to mention the resilience of people in addition to that of buildings when I gave a talk at the Preservation NJ Resiliency Workshop after Sandy in spring of 2015.  While preparing for the talk, I spoke with individuals and institutions while making personal observations.  I used a case study format to present several examples of reconstructed historic properties and evaluated their strategies as a response to resiliency. Historic structures are a particularly challenging case in that they run the risk of alienating the structure’s traditional relationship to the site and land by lifting and they are often materially fragile.  As it turns out, in each case, there were fragile human conditions too.


One case study was a place of worship.  In pre-Sandy times, they knew to work with an architect to renovate and build a beautiful addition integrating old with new and contextually fitting with the neighborhood. In the post-sandy recovery, they did not seek help from a design professional, but got a scheme for foundation repair from an engineer, and then left the remaining decisions to volunteers.  They did not lift the building up.  Why would, in times of crisis, an institution fail to consult with an Architect? This was certainly an irrational response that compromised the result. However, the church members must be credited with exhibiting human resiliency in their efforts to reopen & reoccupy the church. It looks much like it did before, but they are relying on an exotic number of pumps and power, and may not have prepared their building for the next big storm.


Another case I observed was in a coastal community where the planning board told a homeowner that to rebuild the damaged house (primary residence) they would have to demolish the thing that survived Sandy (a structure that was historic but did not meet modern zoning code). The board told them that they failed to demonstrate ‘hardship’. This meeting was 6 months after Sandy. The public was outraged. How could this volunteer (and partially professional) board hide behind their legalistic terminology and fail to see that we all were in ‘hardship’ mode.  After witnessing the strange behavior of the volunteer board, there was no choice but to imagine the stress and hardship they were all suffering personally and to ‘stay strong’, they retreated to narrow interpretations of the code.  If ever a creative approach was needed, in helping property owners rebuild, it was in that year after Sandy.


Another historic institution that I studied, went into ‘fast track’ mode, apparently worried that they would lose membership if the project was done at a slower (‘normal’) schedule.  It took a professional who was performing as a volunteer on the building committee to point out that FEMA codes are not the exact elevation you must build to but a minimum. They came very close to losing the wonderful lower level space if they had not elevated up to a full story above grade. Lifting as a design decision (not just code response) also allowed for human passage, service access and water access.  They then were free to move from the mindset of a mechanical exterior lift (to go up a ½ story) to a full elevator which turned out to be essential to the dignity of members/guests and to the full functioning of the facility.  The leadership may not have been equipped for the crisis and had their own Sandy losses.  The committee then appeared to go into ‘macho’ mode rather than have a sensitivity toward scale, utilize opportunities to make the project more sustainable, and provide a better harmony between historic and new design.  The fast-track approach cost more after construction than it would have to correct things during construction.


All the architectural & engineering expertise in the world will not rescue a person, project or community, if human irrationality and frailty undermine creative, technical, and environmental solutions.  Factors that cause disastrous weather events may or may not be understood by local populations (or even scientists) but we need to re-build (or Un-Build) better. We need to care for those whose well-being has traditionally been connected to their communities, geography or sense of place.  Some community leaders after Sandy have attributed illness, mental health challenges, and even premature death among some elderly victims, to the storm and its aftermath.  Weather events (‘acts of God’) cannot be controlled, but some react with ‘fight’ and make defensive constructions or react with ‘flight’ and give up their properties to get away. I would propose that moving forward we can respond thoughtfully rather than react impulsively. If our sense of place is in a vulnerable location, it may be difficult to engage in discussions about the future, but it needs to be done to include improvements that support human health and well-being.


The home is such a sacred thing that the landscape often becomes an after-thought. I observe this with individuals as well as municipalities. A town with waterfront streets is quick to dump asphalt there rather than discuss ‘green streets’. In the past, we have destroyed marshlands to create ‘lagoon’ developments. The Jersey shore, hungry for land, has an overwhelming amount of constructed bulkhead, paving, impervious surface, limited drainage and very little green infrastructure. Healthy environments and integration of landscape solutions into our communities with softer edges, green infrastructure, and nature-based solutions, are the best practice in a future thinking plan.


So back to that discussion from the beginning of this essay when I asked what does it look like when Architecture has the potential to absorb planning principles and mature beyond our own narrow interests?  If we can design each property better, then the collective becomes more resilient. If we can re-design the land surface and increase the pervious land under all these buildings that we are lifting, then we have offered some mitigation in ground recharge and absorption of storm-water that paving and overbuilding has damaged.  However, we need the collaboration of planning policies and strategies to link such small-scale interventions.


At the municipal level, we need leadership that can envision cross-boundary solutions. Green infrastructure should be incorporated into all capital projects, more ground should become porous, waterfronts should become green and absorb tidal flow and change. We can consolidate municipalities, shrink facilities and create more efficient systems. Governments should preserve more natural lands, increase Blue Acres funding, insist on native plantings and natural stormwater systems.  It is time for the state of NJ to create a Coastal Commission (with precedents of the Pinelands & Highlands Commissions).


Technology and engineering have its place, but architects should collaborate on such projects so that public capital investment solves more than one narrow problem at a time.  Architectural design thinking can provide three-dimensional solutions that, for example, not only allow for walking on a footbridge but also kayaking under the bridge and integrating the bridge into adjacent landscapes.  We can also offer four-dimensional design solutions to incorporate the element of time, change and environmental systems. It’s time for teamwork and collaboration, not hiding in our silos.  It’s time for public projects & investment to require the input of design professionals.


Architecture is where we dwell. Architects have historically been humanists. We are design thinkers, full of strategies, ideas and energies to solve problems and turn liabilities into assets. Humans have been constructing infrastructure for centuries and we think we can engineer our way out of any situation. Ultimately, we need to design for humans and meet them where they are, but the most thoughtful and future thinking innovations must be discussed and human communities reject them at their own peril.





Author’s Bio:

SPB Architecture LLC

Susan Pikaart Bristol      AIA, NJ R.A, LEED AP, NJ P.P.  p.o. box 814, rocky hill, nj  08553   609.924.7989

Susan Pikaart Bristol is a member of the AIA, a Registered Architect, NJ Professional Planner and LEED Certified in Green Design.  She is the principal of SPB Architecture LLC, a practice providing master planning and full architectural services, as well as vision plans and landscape design collaborations.  Her work has ranged from regional-scale planning and community design to small structures and residential projects. Susan is a native of NJ and is recognized as a resilient design professional that has contributed to Storm Sandy recovery efforts.  She has two degrees (B.S. Arch & M. Arch) from the University of Virginia in Architecture.  Design excellence and critical thinking are at the core of her professional and educational activities.

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