Last week, Inhabitat visited Operation Resilient Long Island and NYIT's gallery showcasing 32 extremely smart home designs submitted as part of the Comprehensive Coastal Communities Competition to protect cities from future super storms like Hurricane Sandy. While we were there, we got a chance to speak with Daniel Horn, who co-founded ORLI with Alex Alaimo. We talked about how to design flood-resilient homes and what a small student group of CUNY students are doing to help rebuild Long Island and strengthen coastal communities around the world. Read on for the full interview.
INHABITAT: To start off, can you tell us a bit about ORLI and the 3C competition?
DAN: Operation Resilient Long Island started a global design ideas competition called 3C (short for Comprehensive Costal Communities) and we asked submissions to focus on a new housing typology and integrate that into a new master block vision plan focused on new zoning codes.
We wanted them to adjust the existing character of these communities. For example in Breezy Point, all the homes are very close together so that was a major problem that started the fire and burned own over 100 homes. We asked people to look at that problem and then the problem of raising the home 8 to 12 feet or whatever the base flood elevation is in a specific town. In total, we got over 60 entries from 20 countries and initially we had 300 teams sign up to participate.
INHABITAT: Besides preparing buildings for flooding by raising them up, what else can you do to protect a coastal building? Against high winds, sea spray and things like that.
DAN: That’s really a controversy because people don’t really want – or town officials and the government does not want people building on the water. They want to do some sort of buyout program where you start buying properties and people start moving back from the waters edge. That’s been happening around town.
But if homes are just being raised, you first create a new foundation and do a lot of new water sealing around the foundation where water would come in during a flood. Since [the home is] being raised, you don’t have to worry about flood proofing anything inside because it’s above the floodplain. In case it floods again, you can still occupy the first floor. But the new codes say you can’t have a habitable space under the flood base elevation. Under that it can only be parking or storage or a garage or something; you can’t have a bedroom or a living room in there.
INHABITAT: In terms of flood prevention there are multiple schools of thought. There’s either hard infrastructure like sea walls or soft infrastructure like barrier islands. So let’s talk about that.
DAN: I’m a proponent for combining both. You can’t just do one without the other. Hard infrastructure is good for urban places like [Manhattan] but there have been projects, and I worked on a project for my own thesis, where you can take hard infrastructure and combine it with soft green scape. The green scape can cover a much bigger zone and creates a buffer. The grass acts like a sponge to absorb all the storm water and storm surge.
The hard infrastructure can control the flow of water with canal locks and storm surge barriers are pretty much the wall to hold floods back and that can work with the Gowanus Canal or New Town Creek. They’re industrial waterways, but if it’s more of a coastline, that wouldn’t really work. You need dunes and soft infrastructure like beach plants.
It’s really a combination of both systems.
INHABITAT: So what’s the most ideal arrangement of this combined hard and soft infrastructure?
DAN: Green first and then as the final barrier just in case everything else fails, you have a sea wall underneath where a boardwalk would be.
INHABITAT: For the competition, did you focus on buildings, infrastructure, or both?
DAN: We kept it open ended in terms of where you could put the project and what you could design. We got a lot of varied entries looking at infrastructure along the Gowanus Canal and really small in terms of how to raise a home. So that was really great.
INHABITAT: What is ORLI and how did it start?
DAN: ORLI is our student-led group with help from Frank Mruk, our associate dean, and the dean of the school, Judith DiMaio; they gave us all these connections. We hooked up with John Maguire from Nassau County Emergency Management. He then connected us to Scott Kemins, the building commissioner of Long Beach and we organized a tour of the damaged areas in Long Beach on Long Island – it’s one of the hardest hit areas after the storm.
After that tour in December, we toured a bunch of districts; the Canal District where there was a fire, the West End neighborhood where all the homes are bungalows -they are one story and really small – we started to see some of the houses that were built before the storm were above the floodplain already. So these are two story homes 40 feet in the air just towering over really small one-story bungalows. It was crazy to see that and we knew that would become a problem, because now all these homes are going to start sporadically rising.
We wanted to do something to help. First we started to talk about doing designs ourselves but as students we really didn’t have the expertise. Students usually enter competitions, we wanted to start our own. So we wanted to bring designers from around the world to focus on this problem of not only just Long Island communities but in New York City and the Tri-State area, and in the future it will affect every coastal town.
INHABITAT: Did you guys ever consider starting ORLI before the hurricane hit?
DAN: No, Hurricane Sandy really was a wake up call.
Right after the tour we started ORLI and our goal was to aid our coastal communities in whatever way possible, with the methods and means available. We made an informational pamphlet, which is our first stab at outreach. We simplified all the FEMA regulations that homeowners had to rebuild to, because there was so much confusion after the storm, no one knew what to do.
INHABITAT: So it was more of an informational mission to start off?
DAN: Yeah, we became public advocates. We contact a lot of non-profit groups like Waves for Water who was doing an initiative to give homeowners money to rebuild. We worked with a bunch of people who organized symposiums on Long Island like Sustainable Long Island, Vision Long Island, and all those groups. We try to get a lot of the students engaged and informed of that committee, so we have 20 or 30 kids helping us.
We wanted to also break regional boundaries in terms of our schools with one in Old Westbury and the other in Manhattan. So we brought kids from both campuses through Google Hangout chats late at night trying to brainstorm what we could do. We had three to four hour long video chats just brainstorming.
After that, around February or March we organized a regional collaboration event called “Raise or Stay,” and we brought people from Connecticut, New Jersey, and Long Island. All these people were doing their own thing and they were not talking to each other regionally. So we wanted to bring them all together so maybe they could learn from each other. We were like the brokers or facilitators, and we presented our own thing. We made a short video to say what we were doing and what the competition was about, and that video won the MoMa PS1 call for ideas video competition.
We met a lot of good people at Raise or Stay like the president of American Institute of Architects Long Island, Martin Hero. He helped us get to Syracuse, where we just presented some things at two or three weeks ago. Ever since Raise or Stay it’s pretty much been all competition work like get the website up and get people to enter.
INHABITAT: In terms of what Operation Resilient Long Island is doing, how are you guys making a model for the national scene?
DAN: Well the Federal Government is helping with a new home raising plan. They are going to raise over 4,000 homes and that’s all from government stipends and money. I think it’s a combination of home raisings and moving homes back from the coast. I guess it’s hard because it’s really only things you can do, because if you wanted to relocate, where is everyone going to go? Like 4,000 families, there’s nothing really available or people are so connected to the water they don’t want to leave because they grew up there and they want their children’s lives to start there.
Then the Army Corps of Engineers is doing beach replenishment along the Fire Island and all the barrier islands. So that becomes green infrastructure and that will help the rest of the island. And I guess those islands really shouldn’t be inhabited, they are supposed to be vacant to protect the mainland.
INHABITAT: Part of the competition was that you wanted to develop models for the national scene?
DAN: So we looked at the entries again and we got so many varied ones, which is good because we found there’s no lack of ideas. It’s just a lack of knowledge and how to implement those ideas. So we looked through them and created five building blocks; new foundation, vertical access, raised entrance, a usable underside, and elevated sidewalks.
So we think those are five really specific ways you can improve a single home. Looking at it from a bigger viewpoint, we want to show those building blocks to towns so they can start reimagining how their town community character can stay intact. It’s going to get so crazy with homes raising everywhere like 40 feet in the air. That’s the problem we don’t want that to happen. We want homes the stay unique but still maintain character.
How it is now, its just bungalows. They look nice but they aren’t resilient. That’s all going into our publication, which was at the Tedx conference. They will have a chapter on the building blocks and we have analysis, text, and we show diagrams. There are small portions of the boards we got from projects that deal with each category. So when you flip through it, you can easily understand like that’s how you use the underside or that’s how you get up to the first floor now. It looks good and it can be replicated and all the homes will like it and people will still want to live there.
That’s the main thing we want to get across with this publication. So that’s our phase two, we want to start going to towns and work with them to create new zoning changes or laws that take all these building blocks into account. Phase one was the competition to show examples that apply our new principles.
Everyone is just focused on getting back to their homes and no one is really taking a step back and looking at the long-term consequences. So that’s where we came in as students, we had that unique opportunity to do that for people that didn’t have time.
INHABITAT: The towns you’re talking to now – are they local? Or are you going beyond that?
DAN: For now, since we have a lot of connections with local towns and even Tri-State area we’re regional, but we can also think about going globally. We want to bring the exhibition to London and maybe other coastal towns.
INHABITAT: What strides are you guys making to extend the conversation globally?
DAN: The traveling exhibition really would be it, just take it to other global communities that have the same problems. A lot of the urban areas around the world are based around the water. It’s good for transportation, commerce, and historically that’s where all the big cities grew up, especially in a megalopolis region – it’s so densely populated. That would be our next step, and maybe even make volume two of this book, where it goes even more in-depth with zoning master plans and examples of other things like that.