Resilient Design for Coastal Projects

How can buildings and towns be designed to protect and withstand the environment? 

Why is resilience important?

With 50 percent of the United States population living on the coast, it's no surprise that rising sea levels are among the highest-profile environmental topics. With 2023 as the hottest year on record, environmental changes are impacting facilities right now – not just in the future and every project must consider resiliency. In the face of extreme weather conditions, from flood to drought to intense storms, resilient design principles guide a holistic approach that protects the client's investment and the environment in any location worldwide.

Preparedness, responsiveness, and resilience have a great deal in common. As architects, implementing resilient design enables us to prepare our clients with facilities and infrastructure that can respond and adapt to current and future conditions and events. Sustainable design principles are inherent in resilient design, as minimizing additional environmental impact and protecting our limited natural resources are tenets of the practice.

How is resilient design implemented?

Projects designed with resiliency in mind involve close coordination between all architectural and engineering disciplines and feature a balanced, sustainable approach to mitigating future risks. The Plymouth Maritime Facility in Plymouth, MA, is a testament to how a comprehensive Harbor Management Plan, including climate risk assessment, can inform the design process. As an emergency contact center, this facility must remain operational, and the design incorporates layout and material safeguards against natural events.

Evaluating environmental risks and establishing client priorities during the discovery phase form a strong foundation for a successful, resilient project. For example, critical facilities such as hospitals, 911 call centers, and military installations can not lose power, emphasizing building systems and generators' location, protection, and setup. Other projects may have different priorities for reasons ranging from function to location, such as concern with managing significant snowfalls. In many ways, resilient design marries the best of common sense engineering and design with sustainability. 

Plymouth Maritime Facility on the shoreline, raised on piles with breakaway walls.
Plymouth Maritime Facility, raised on piles and breakaway walls.

Case Study: Plymouth Maritime Facility

Located at the start of the Plymouth Jetty and Breakwater, the Plymouth Maritime Facility required a design capable of responding to a dynamic coastal environment. The state-of-the-art facility for the harbor includes the harbormaster offices with panoramic views of the harbor and boat ramp, conference and education space for training, and transient boater facilities for water, laundry, restrooms, and public restrooms. 

Utilizing resilient design principles to inform the design process, the OLSON LEWIS + Architects design team worked closely with the town and harbormaster department to develop the facility and meet the goals of the Harbor Plan. Resiliency was a key theme throughout the design process, leading to choices in design and material that will service the facility for years to come.

The team examined projected climate change conditions to site the facility in a manner that responds to sea level rise and prevailing winds while maximizing functionality. The elevated building features a stacking form, aligning with the harbor and maximizing daylight and views. The lowest building floor and all proposed utilities are above this area's FEMA base flood elevation. The design strategy locates the critical harbormaster spaces on the second floor. The first floor has conference rooms, offices, and restroom spaces raised on piles and breakaway walls. 

Evaluating how building materials will withstand storms, flooding, and salt is critical to the design solution in a coastal environment. OLSON LEWIS + Architects' design incorporates finishes such as metal roofing and yellow cedar shingles naturally resistant to wind, saltwater, and UV rays. Additional considerations include robust and redundant structural design and windows that can withstand hurricane-force winds. 

Another critical component of the Harbor Plan and resiliency is economic. Plymouth's Harbor Plan called for improved facilities for Transient Boating, not only as a safe refuge as a key port for transiting the Cape Cod Canal but also as an economic driver along the waterfront. Public restrooms, facilities for Transient Boaters, and classroom space for Boating Safety Courses and Harbor Committee meetings were all crucial to the program of the Maritime Facility. Amenities like seating and picnic tables help to bring water access and views to residents and visitors alike. The design also accounts for the future expansion of transient moorings in the harbor to ensure the new facilities are adequate for years.    

Guided by resilient design principles and led by a highly collaborative team, the Plymouth Maritime Facility highlights how resilient design enhances our ability to envision future needs and challenges, integrating all aspects of sustainability – environmental, economic, and social.

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