National Building Museum: Designing for Disaster


By Kristin Cotter

On 31 July 2014, members of the TIDES team visited the Designing for Disaster exhibition at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. The National Building Museum aims to educate people about the impact that the built environment has on their lives. Designing for Disaster addresses the manner in which people assess risks from natural hazards, analyzing the ways in which we decide where and how to build. It also focuses on disaster mitigation policies, technologies, and strategies in order to encourage the building of more disaster-resilient communities and increase the capacity to respond to and recover from natural disasters. It identifies the great importance of mitigation, as it is the only preemptive phase of emergency management. The exhibit focuses on the United States and displays video, artwork, wreckage, models, technologies, maps, photographs, and interactive games, among other things.

The exhibit is spatially divided according to the four classical elements: earth (earthquakes), air (tornadoes and hurricanes), fire (wildfires), and water (floods). Designing for Disaster points out that many cities have been built and continue to be built in high risk areas. It provides safety tips and recommended “hazard mitigation activities” that target planning and public policy, property protection, systems and infrastructure, public information, and emergency services. In every situation, making an emergency plan and maintaining an emergency preparedness kit are recommended activities.

The first gallery after the introduction is dedicated to earth hazards. This section contains structural case studies such as the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) Headquarters, California Memorial Stadium, and Seattle Central Library. The California Memorial Stadium, for example, employed seismic blocks to reduce the effects of strong shaking. Highlighted technologies include fluid viscous dampers and buckling restrained braces. Damping technologies are structures designed to move and pivot during an earthquake. Although they were originally developed by the military to protect missile silos and ships against nuclear explosions, today they are frequently used on bridges and buildings to provide earthquake protection. Braced frames are part of the overall structure of a building and are meant to resist the lateral movement of wind and earthquake forces by increasing stiffness and preventing structural distortion. The earth gallery contains an interactive game developed by Earthquake Country Alliance called “Beat the Quake,” which educates families about home safety measures and household preparation in anticipation of an earthquake. This section also displays an installation that, at the push of a button, demonstrates the manner in which specially designed stadium steps move during an earthquake. Tips to ensure safety before an earthquake hits include securing major appliances to the wall, bracing overhead light fixtures, and having a licensed contractor inspect your gas lines. These tips are vital, as 75 million Americans in 39 states are at risk for an earthquake.

The air hazards portion of the exhibit contains a FEMA-specified safe room that can be incorporated into the design of a home and is made to resist a tornado. The prototype of a rapidly deployable health unit, which would be especially useful to the military, is also on display. It can operate off the grid with modular components for energy, waste, and water. Mitigation technologies include Doppler Next Generation Radars (NEXRADs) updated with Dual-polarization, which provide a better sense of where severe weather will occur. Another new technology that is in testing is a Multi-function Phased Array Radar (MPAR), which is adapted from naval technology and could potentially increase tornado warning lead times by 50%. Information on campground and community shelters, such as the one at the Iowa State Fair, is provided. This section also includes an interactive room in which visitors are asked to build a model house that can withstand category 5 winds. Tips to prepare for a tornado or hurricane include scheduling an annual roof inspection and installing storm shutters.

The fire gallery of the Designing for Disaster exhibit stresses the importance of building fire-resistant communities and creating buffer zones to mitigate the risk of wildfires. Efforts to achieve this include the Santa Fe Municipal Watershed Investment Plan, which seeks to restore damaged forestry and ensure a reliable water supply for the region’s citizens. The exhibit also promotes the banning of untreated wood shingles, as has already been done in California, and encourages the development of fire-resistant roofs. Tips to ensure safety before a wildfire include pruning overgrown vegetation, installing metal mesh screens, using non-combustible materials on the exterior of your house, and installing dual-pane tempered glass windows.

Water is the final element addressed in the exhibit. Mechanisms like the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) offer important financial protection against floods. Mitigation techniques such as making room for rivers, elevating structures, and creating living shore lines are presented. Safety tips before a flood include reviewing insurance policies, keeping gutters and storm drains clear, elevating utilities, and installing flood vents and backflow valves.

The last room displays various components of an emergency preparedness kit, which is recommended regardless of the type of natural disaster your region is most at risk for. Useful items include a first aid kit, important documents, batteries, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radio, and “meals ready to eat” (MREs).

After the exhibit, members of TIDES had the chance to interview Chrysanthe Broikos, a curator at the National Building Museum who played a crucial role in bringing the Designing for Disaster exhibition to life. Ms. Broikos discussed the early planning stages of the exhibit, which began in 2008. It was initiated and funded by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The exhibit intentionally does not include international designs because they were thought to have less penetration than domestic examples. The case studies were selected through individual research.

Ms. Broikos described the focus of the exhibit as being on pre-, not post-, disaster design, including the long-term planning before a disaster. This is a difficult, yet critical, period because often people are only willing to change after a disaster has struck. For example, it took two magnitude 6.7 earthquakes in California to incite changes, which were motivated at the local level and led to a re-focusing within the engineering community. The process of change was long, however. After the earthquake in 1989 the California Memorial Stadium was rated as one of the worst structural offenders, but was not eligible for federal money. The retrofit was finally completed in 2012 through the raising of private funds. Further, Ms. Broikos maintained that laws and insurance plans need to be altered so that construction and residence in high-risk areas are deterred. FEMA has taken steps in this direction by setting new standards that people must meet in order to receive aid. Ms. Broikos added that it is also necessary to take climate change into account when considering natural hazards.

Q: In building a sustainable community, is a top-down or bottom-up approach more effective (i.e. should the government or local community be the driving force)?

Ms. Broikos asserted that any project must be community driven in order to be successful. She cited resiliency efforts in Davenport, Iowa, whose citizens never opted for structural flood management from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and instead chose to manage flooding on their own. In this instance people made a decision as a community and acted accordingly.

Q: How is the military embracing these designs?

Ms. Broikos spoke about a series of upcoming programs with the American Red Cross and the Nature Conservancy in which a representative from Norfolk will be participating, discussing infrastructure issues related to bases and surrounding local areas.

Q: What are the biggest challenges to building more resilient communities (awareness, money, will)?

A: Awareness was identified by Ms. Broikos as being the largest impediment to resiliency efforts. She pointed out people’s incredible capacity to rationalize inaction, since doing nothing is often the easiest option. Convincing people to buy-in is crucial. She claims that getting people to make an emergency preparedness kit is the first step towards building a more resilient community.

Overall, Designing for Disaster supports TIDES’s goal of providing sustainable support to populations under stress, specifically to post-disaster communities. The exhibit mainly focuses on shelter, one of the eight key infrastructures identified by TIDES. Both civilians and the military can utilize the technologies and strategies identified in the exhibit, which range from a battery operated radio to a safe house to specialized radar systems. With mitigation of the risks posed by natural hazards as the focus of the Designing for Disaster exhibit, it falls right in line with the goals of the TIDES project.

More at:


About startides

TIDES Research Assistant Intern
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s