Multifamily Housing Resilience: Designing for Disaster Preparedness and Recovery

Millions of Americans reside in multifamily housing, and the need for new developments remains crucial to addressing housing shortages and stimulating economic growth. However, as recent events have shown, the world can be a challenging and unpredictable place. The tragic Surfside condominium collapse of 2021, which claimed 98 lives, serves as a stark reminder of the consequences of poor construction. Additionally, multifamily buildings are susceptible to various natural disasters, including earthquakes, hurricanes, and fires. To ensure the safety of future residents and enhance the value and longevity of these structures, it is essential to design multifamily architecture with resilience in mind.

Here, we present best practices for disaster preparedness and recovery in multifamily housing, emphasizing the importance of engaging a reputable architecture firm that incorporates these considerations into their designs.

Risk Assessment:

Effective disaster preparedness begins with a comprehensive understanding of the specific risks prevalent in a given area. While some risks like wildfires in California or hurricanes in Florida are well-known, others may be less obvious, such as coastal flooding or winter storms. Balancing resilience without overdesigning involves tailoring the building to the most common local risks. However, universal risks like public health crises and evolving climate change impacts should also be anticipated to enhance building longevity.

Ventilation and Infection Control:

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the inadequacies of most apartment buildings in handling contagious disease outbreaks. Retrofitting HVAC systems can be expensive, making it cost-effective to incorporate infection control features from the initial design phase. High-quality ventilation systems with HEPA filters and individual apartment zoning not only mitigate disease transmission but also reduce indoor allergies, enhance comfort, and lower energy bills. Outdoor amenities, when feasible, contribute to public health by offering safer spaces for residents during outbreaks and are desirable to prospective tenants.

Fire Safety:

Every building carries some risk of fire, as tragically demonstrated by the Grenfell Tower fire in 2019. Designing for fire safety is especially critical in wildfire-prone areas worsened by climate change. Fire-resistant external cladding, along with well-designed internal fire containment measures, are very important. Caution should be exercised when implementing stay-put policies, reserving them for assisted living facilities with hospital-style fire containment. Additionally, strategic landscaping can protect the building in fire-prone regions by creating buffer zones and avoiding tree planting near the structure.

Flood Prevention:

In flood-prone or coastal areas, effective design must reduce the risk of residential areas being inundated. Legal requirements dictate elevating all residential areas above anticipated flood levels, including lobbies with sitting areas. Evacuation routes must also be incorporated above the flood risk level. Utilizing non-elevated spaces for purposes like parking can be a practical solution.

Earthquake Resilience:

In earthquake-prone regions, the choice of materials and designs significantly influences the resilience of a building. Insulated concrete forms are typically recommended for their ability to minimize deformation during earthquakes. Adherence to building codes is paramount to ensuring safety.

Hurricanes and High Winds:

Tall buildings face challenges from high winds, requiring robust vertical connections between foundations and roofs. The design should account for resisting winds exceeding 200 miles per hour, with consideration of floor plan shapes that reduce wind load. However, designers must balance wind resilience with residents’ access to natural light.

When embarking on a multifamily housing project, it’s important to partner with an architecture firm experienced in disaster resilience. In Houston, Texas, Ted Trout Architects is a trusted choice, dedicated to crafting buildings that endure in an increasingly unpredictable world. Building with disaster resilience in mind not only safeguards lives but also ensures that multifamily housing remains a cornerstone of our communities, contributing to both safety and economic growth.