Architecture students tackle flooding

Designing a research campus for a university halfway across the world would be an unexpected task for most architects. But for 10 students at the School of Architecture, theoretically designing such a commission represented the culmination of a semester’s work on integrating climate studies and architecture.

Students in an Advanced Design Studio created a master plan for a hypothetical research center in Taipei. Beyond laying out buildings and detailing space usage throughout the 2.5-kilometer-long campus, the team had to grapple with creating infrastructure to deal with the frequent flooding in the region. Architecture critic Jennifer Leung said the studio course gave students an opportunity to adopt an interdisciplinary approach to architecture that reflects the school’s growing focus on ecology and sustainability in recent years. Studio participant Altair Peterson ARC ’13 said that rather than implementing a one-size-fits-all approach to architecture, this focus on flooding taught her that it is essential to focus on local climate conditions when designing architecture, a skill that will prove particularly valuable for accepting foreign commissions in the future.

“We have embraced the need for architects to be able to work collaboratively with experts from various fields,” Leung said. “Our group of students have benefited from interaction with climate scientists and ecologists, as well as lighting designers, structural engineers and sustainability consultants.”

The course is one of several third-year courses at the School of Architecture to take a trip abroad, which Peterson said are often tailored toward the visiting professor’s specific interests. In this case, visiting professors Roisin Heneghan and Shih-Fu Peng, who co-taught the course along with Leung, wanted to explore the intersection between climate studies and architectural design.

The students examined and analyzed the proposed campus’s site on a trip to Taipei earlier in the semester and were encouraged to think about innovative ways to address the flooding. Leung said that while resisting floods through barriers — the current approach in Taipei — is “viable,” students explored less common options including retention, diversion and reuse of floodwaters, allowing them to build outside of the existing floodwall.

Peterson said the studio also challenged students to think holistically about the space, as they had to incorporate infrastructure ranging from the landscape surrounding campus to the rooms within campus buildings in their designs.

“I took away confidence in dealing with a large range of scales of architecture while thinking about how to incorporate the flooding [issue],” Peterson said.

Leung said the School of Architecture has the unique opportunity to address the need for interdisciplinary solutions to contemporary issues that are currently restricted by the limited solutions professionals tend to adopt.

Although Taipei already has a powerful flood control system and the proposed plan remains purely theoretical, Leung said the novel model “may have widespread implementation.”

“We take certain license and risk in the hope of expanding architecture’s influence — as a think tank of sorts,” Leung said. “The influence of the work that happens at schools of architecture could be much greater than typically assumed.”

Leung noted that their model may apply to flood plains and university campuses along the east coast, adding that there is increasing demand for campus development in the Far East and Middle East.

Indeed, the Yale Climate and Energy Institute and Taipei’s Academia Sinica have already expressed interest in the work, and Nina Rappaport, editor-in-chief of the School of Architecture’s biannual publication “Constructs,” plans to host a roundtable discussion on architectural responses to flooding later this month.

“[Our work] raises larger questions as to what type of leadership roles schools of architecture can take in climate change issues,” Leung said.

The student group will present their master plan at the School of Architecture this Thursday.

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