Designing resilience against climate change

Climate change is an immediate threat to humanity. The United Nations identifies climate change as “the defining issue of our time” and that “without drastic action today, adapting to these impacts in the future will be more difficult and costly” (2021). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that “annul emissions of GHGs and other climate forcers continue to increase unabatedly. Confidence is very high that the window of opportunity, the period when significant change can be made, for limiting climate change within tolerable boundaries is rapidly narrowing” (2019). How can the architecture industry respond to climate change to meet the needs of their clients and face eco-challenges such as rising sea levels and carbon emissions? One method is to design infrastructure that adapts to the changing climate system. This can be accomplished through resilient and sustainable design.

Australian architecture and design firm Hames Sharley is committed to sustainable design through practice, industry, and research to create and support infrastructure that responds to and is adaptable to climate stressors; ensuring that communities continue to flourish whatever climatic and ecological challenges they may face.

Design response to rising sea levels in the Maldives

The tide has turned in the problem of rising sea levels (RSL) resultant from warming global temperatures: rising sea waters cannot be reversed and many delta cities and island nations with low-lying coastal zones are at extreme risk. From a design perspective, the current ‘go-to’ methodologies to respond to climatic forces such as RSL are ‘fortification’ (keep water out), ‘adaption’ (live with water), and ‘relocation’ (move to higher ground).

Ahead of commencing roles at Hames Sharley, Khoa Do, as the Head of Design Education in Practice, and Emil Jonescu, Head of Research and Development, the pair were part of a 2020 study with researcher Ahdha Moosa, that investigated design responses to RSL in the Maldives, a highly populated tropical nation made up of 1192 islands in the Indian Ocean – and under immediate threat from RSL due to its flat elevation (averaging only 1.8 m above sea level).

Design response to rising sea levels in the Maldives: A study into aquatic architecture (Moosa, Do & Jonescu, 2020) is an urgent call for action to the discipline of design, engineering and infrastructure construction, specialist aquatic consultants, and governments against RSL through critical design thinking that implements novel and sustainable solutions. Current defensive architecture in the Maldives such as natural atolls are heavily eroded and the use of artificial tetrapod seawalls are both unsustainable and unfeasible as long-term defence mechanisms to mitigate RSL. The researchers assert that adaptive strategies that meet existing needs must be designed from “an entirely new and sustainable framework” (2020, p 626). Two adaptive frameworks include urban resilience and aquatecture. Urban resilience – or the capacity of an urban community (its inhabitants, infrastructure, social and economic systems) to adapt, survive, and grow from stresses and challenges – will be the way in which communities respond to climate change. Professional disciplines – such as architecture, design, and construction - can be significant contributors to urban resilience through academic and social discourse and industry. Aquatecture, as defined by Wylson (1986), incorporates water in design – a design element rather than obstruction. Thus, the researchers position aquatecture as one example of urban resilience in approaching RSL in coastal development areas.

Maldives Image wide drone shot.

The researchers carried out an iterative design methodology to support research by design process (using literature review and case study critique) to explore opportunities in developing sustainable solutions to RSL in the Maldives through an architectural-infrastructural typological proposal. Design processes included sketching, diagramming, collaging, detailed drawings, sections, perspectives, constructional drawings, and 3D modelling. Potential case studies were analysed according to nine categories: cost, term solution, efficacy, social acceptance, ecological impact, maintenance, social equity, speed of implementation, and scale. The five chosen case studies applied distinct strategies to combat RSL including living shorelines, floodable development, primitive floating development, modern floating development, and coastal armouring (tetrapods). Analysis determined the two most critical aspects of RSL mitigation projects are coastal armouring (tetrapods) and living shoreline solutions; the third highest ranked solution is modern floating development. Therefore, a hybrid solution that “triangulates among the top three solutions where possible and appropriate” should be considered when designing projects to mitigate against RSL (2020, p 629).

The five case studies that were examined were representative of the increasing body of work in RSL mitigation: Sea Change Boston project by Sasaki Associates in Boston, Massachusetts; MOSE project in Venice, Italy; DeltaSync’s floating city project commissioned by the Seasteading Institute; floating houses designed by Marlies Rohmer in IJburg, Amsterdam, Netherlands; and an adaptive climate change strategy in district 4, Vietnam. An important finding was that it was essential that “designers must work with and engage all stakeholders who must be part of the discussion and process to ensure community adoption and acceptance” of projects (2020, p 633).

The research helped inform the best strategy (fortify, retreat and isolate, or adapt) to address the immediacy of tidal flooding and RSL in the Maldives and, particularly, the island capital Malé. In most of the examined case studies, fortification has been used as defensive architecture; though a short-term solution, this approach has a minimal disruptive impact on existing societies within the context of the case studies – however, it is unsustainable and does not suit large contexts with extensive coastlines to defend. The traditional method of ‘retreat and isolate’ to land/islands with higher elevations is no longer a viable option for the Maldivian people within a contemporary urban framework. This leaves adaption – considering water as a key design parameter and central to decision making – as an option to develop and co-generate positive outcomes through design. However, adaption may be resisted. The researchers assert that the best implementation of adaption on a societal scale is to start at an institutional level; thus “entire societies must adapt education and act as the agents for change” (2020, p 634).

The researchers developed a phased response for opportunities for building resilient infrastructure in the Maldives as a “method of enabling the Maldives to develop self-sufficient practices and resilient urban growth proactively in the face of rising seas” (2020, p 635). It is not a cure-all solution, but a proposal to stimulate conversation about the encroaching threat of RSL on urban infrastructure in coastal communities and to identify the Maldives as a prototype for future coastal growth. The proposal has five phases: 0) fortify, 1) react, 2) adapt, 3) expand, 4) synthesize. Phase 2 would implement a self-sufficient and resilient modern floating development, “Module 1”, off the coast of Malé. “Module 1” would be adaptable to support existing Maldivian society and future population growth and adapt to changing climatic conditions, have flexible and multi-use infrastructure, and be part of a phasing-in process to allow for the local community to transition to an alternative mode of off-shore living. “Module 1” would be designed for urban resilience through the implementation of aquatecture.

Moosa, Do, and Jonescu (2020) positioned their study on RSL mitigation methods for the Maldives through the scope of architecture and construction management due to the unique position those disciplines have in advancing and catering to the needs of urban infrastructure at risk of climatic stresses. They analysed case studies in the urban context to develop a sustainable phased response, “a theoretical architecture and infrastructure typology addressing critical components required to provide habitus for communities at risk of becoming fully submerged” (2020, p 638). This proposal aims to fortify and adapt the Maldivian people and their infrastructure against RSL in the decades ahead. However, this is not the only contemporary research into resilient design led by Hames Sharley.

A sustainable future by design

Hames Sharley’s X-Potential Research publications have a growing focus on sustainable outcomes through design where there is an opportunity for the built-environment, multi-disciplinary design firm to lead by example. Now is the time to invest in sustainable design as “Climate change vulnerability, impacts and adaption will influence prospects for sustainable development…Sustainable development is needed, desirable, and environmentally beneficial” (IPCC 2003). Sustainable development is transdisciplinary and has many aspects allowing for the creation of novel and ‘best-fit’ solutions. Some sustainable design methods investigated and implemented by Hames Sharley include fortifying existing and new infrastructure against climate change, regenerative design, and resilient design.

In 2022, Chris Maher, Jason Ludwig, Troy Cooper, Emil Jonescu, and Khoa Do collaborated on an urban development study of Australian coastal morphology preparedness of local governments. Through case studies, they found that communities impacted by rising sea levels and coastal erosion were already suffering from the economic and social impacts and needed to establish a unified mitigation plan. Hames Sharley and other design firms can grasp this immediate opportunity to lead and pursue conversations with coastal municipalities at the ‘pre-search’ and strategic phases of policymaking. By using methods such as case study site analysis and builds to develop a solutions-based implementation framework to mitigate against climate change, architecture, design, and construction disciplines have the potential to be at the forefront of informed future master planning and urban development on adaption and response to rising sea levels and coastal erosion.

Scotch College render

Another X-Potential study published in 2022 was by Yaara Plaves, Paris Jacobs, and Emil Jonescu on Regenerative Design. They argue that built environment professionals have a moral obligation through principle and practice to be active agents of systemic change. After conducting a literature review of existing research, they found a paucity of consensus surrounding the definition of the concept ‘regenerative design’. The researchers themselves broadly define ‘regenerative design’ as “[seeking] to elicit a positive impact on people and planet, while sustainable design aims to merely reduce harm” (Plaves et al. 2022). They state that it is critical for the built environment industry to transition from sustainable design which is no longer sufficient to meet our current climate crisis to regenerative design.

This research doesn’t happen alone. It is part of a wider collaboration with stakeholders, consultants, and research institutions to connect academia, the private sector, and Hames Sharley practice at a national and international scale, allowing opportunities for practice-led research partnerships. And the research is ongoing: Head of Research, Emil Jonescu, is currently developing research and methodologies across all Hames Sharley’s Portfolios, including cutting-edge performance-based studies in hospitals; and climate action-related resilience. This has the potential for key developments in future planning but will require a collegiate and professional collaboration between Hames Sharley and a Communities-of-Practice cohort.

Climate change is already here; there is no turning back the tide or winding back the clock.

Without immediate action, people, the planet, and infrastructure will suffer the consequences of dying biodiversity, loss of habitat, rising global temperatures, rising sea levels, food shortages, catastrophic natural disasters (droughts, floods, bushfires, etc.), and we will see a new phenomenon in our modern world: climate refugees. Architecture and design firms can play a critical role in adapting our communities to climate change. By investing and participating in research, we can create new innovative ways of thinking and design methods to combat and adapt to the impacts of climate change. The built environment industry has an opportunity to embrace sustainable design methods that will positively benefit people and their communities. The time for change is now for a sustainable future.

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