Designing to Avert Disaster

Robert Glazer is the business leader and author that inspired me to start writing Saturday Spark. Bob is also personally passionate about sustainability. In his Friday Forward newsletter this week, he shared a story about a community near Fort Myers, Florida that was intentionally designed, in part, with climate disasters in mind. At Babcock Ranch, Bob writes that: 

“Buildings and houses are powered by emissions-free energy, residents drive electric cars and golf carts, and children ride their bikes to school. Residents can also often be found enjoying outdoor events with family and friends.

He then explains that “the community was designed specially to account for global warming and natural disasters such as Hurricane Ian. Developers selected a site 30 miles inland, and about 30 feet above sea level, to maximize protection from the wrath of Florida’s weather. They built power lines underground to avoid weather-driven outages, installed massive pools around the neighborhood to stave off flooding, and even designed the streets throughout the community to hold floodwater and prevent homes from getting soaked.

Furthermore, all homes in Babcock Ranch are designed to adhere to the latest hurricane building codes and are built with “hip” roofs, not gabled roofs, to deflect wind. All the homes are also constructed with cinderblocks and hurricane ties, specifically to be able to withstand a category four hurricane.

When Hurricane Ian hit Florida, Babcock Ranch passed its first true weather disaster test with flying colors. The community suffered minimal property damage aside from a few knocked over street signs. They experienced no flooding, and no power outages, despite a few flickering lights. The latter was due to Babcock Ranch having the largest solar installation in the United States, combined with a battery backup system, as well as those underground power lines.

Robert Glazer

As we all know from the devastating news and photos from the other areas around Ft. Myers, very few communities fared as well. It will be one of the most costly, and deadly, hurricanes in US history and sadly, a harbinger of what we are likely to experience more frequently. 

As leaders, we have seen this data and heard the warnings. And yet very few communities, homes, or businesses are being designed with intentionality to survive what happens in a 2 degree, let alone 3 or 4 degree hotter world. There is a cohort that believes that designing for it lets us off the hook for stopping it. There is another that believes it’s just too expensive to adapt (and some of the twisted economics for who pays for natural disasters make that argument even more compelling). It’s also just way easier for most people to default to “business as usual”. Bob believes the core problem is leadership. “Leaders in the private and public sectors love to chase today’s small wins, rather than make the right investments to solve tomorrow’s biggest problems.” 

Designing to avert disaster means that we must design and build in an entirely different way than we have before. We have to question where we put things, what standards we adhere to, and what materials we use. These are not popular choices. Should we even build on a barrier island, a beachfront or a remote town in the Sierra Nevadas? What if the more resilient material isn’t as “eye pleasing”. Who pays to put every electric wire underground?

My hypothesis is that if you talked to anyone involved with Babcock Ranch today, they would tell you that the design decisions, and investments made, were “worth it” relative to the destruction around them. The insurers will learn they were too. That just may be the catalyst for when designing to avert disaster becomes the rule, not the exception.

Quote of the Week: “If we always push off the things that are important, but not urgent, eventually everything will become both urgent and important.”

Robert Glazer

Are you ready to build a better working world?