Lessons from the floods
As a child, I played “under the floor”. It was a wonderful place, full of possibilities. My friends and I would find places to hide or to play house or school, or to hide our childhood treasures – marbles, baseballs, comic books – or to just pretend adventure. My uncle stored lumber there as well, while waiting for it to be delivered to the job site. The world “under the floor” was different for everyone, but it was important to us all.
The first time I remember a flood in my part of Bain Town, I was not yet a teenager. The water in the street was above my knees, but I could sit, high and dry, on the top step leading up to my porch and watch things float by. I listened as my grandmother held her three-way conversations, standing on our porch, with her friends across the street, also on their porches. Only one house in the neighborhood had water inside. It was a small house owned by a man who said he was only going to be leasing a spot in the yard next door until he had paid for his own lot nearby, then he would move his house again. That house had been placed on six low blocks, much too low to the ground. He had ignored the warnings.
I don’t think my grandmother felt particularly lucky that there was no water in her house. That was why the house was built on tall, cut stone blocks nearly 30 years earlier. Instead, she was annoyed that she could not get to work. You see, everyone knew that a house should be built above the flood level. Everyone.
More than a half century later, no one knows. Two weeks ago, following a once-in-a-decade deluge, hundreds, if not thousands of houses, built near the ground in low-lying areas, found themselves fighting water inside, sill-high. The common knowledge that during one of the two annual rainy seasons there would be flooding is no longer so common. The question is left to developers seeking to deliver the lowest cost lots to their customers, to designers wishing to impress their clients with style and to builders offering a few dollars off for reducing the height of the foundation.
It is said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I believe there is a need for us to change the way we approach the design of our built environment. This is not a question of looks or of novelty. It is a question of approaching the environment with respect, rather than thinking that our wealth and sophistication makes us immune to the laws of nature.
Georgetown, Guyana is built well below sea level. First of all – and Queen’s Cove in Freeport might consider this – to protect the city, they have built an enormous sea wall, important enough to the Guyanese to have become a landmark and a social gathering place. Still, because they understand that there would be times when the city would flood anyway, many of the houses are built with the living accommodations upstairs. The ground level is used for storage and service areas. The result is a general two-story look which has become the character of the city. It is their response to the conditions of their place.
Many years ago, two other Bahamian architects and I participated in a design competition to design housing for the homeless of an area outside Manila, the Philippines. The brief made it clear that none of the accommodations should be at ground level, since Manila floods during the monsoon season. All the entries were buildings on stilts, with parking and storage at ground level. That was their way of responding to their conditions.
Igloos are a response to the need to maximize the interior volume of the housing for arctic dwellers, while minimizing exposure to the cold, winter blasts. And houses perched atop blocks of stone, with the floor well above the flood level, is the response of earlier Bahamians to the anticipation of annual flooding in their place.
This basic response to the climate has characterized the development of architecture globally, and The Bahamas has not been an exception. The style had become so common that, even when there was no possibility of flooding, buildings still chose to raise their floors above the ground. Many of the prominent, wealthy structures (e.g. Graycliff and National Art Gallery of The Bahamas, housed in Villa Doyle) are fine examples of this tradition. So it would not be unreasonable to expect designers to respect the climate and the wisdom of the past as we seek to rethink our building vocabulary.
Lesson one: We live in a particular place, with a particular climate that is different from other places. Here, there are rainy seasons at specific times every year, and every several years during those rainy seasons, there is flooding in low-lying areas. If we ignore this primary lesson, we will always suffer.
Lesson two: The development of land is a sculptural affair. That is, it is necessary to plan the flow of ground water and to anticipate its ponding and removal. The cost of systems of removal – drainage systems – is as important as the cost of utilities. “Saving” on this important aspect of land development dooms consumers to higher future costs. Consumers who choose to purchase on the basis of first cost only are often planning their own future financial pain.
Lesson three: The design of a building cannot be independent of the characteristics of the site. Topography, orientation and location determine most of the eventual extent to which the house is enjoyed. Flooding is predictable, and planning for it may not be fun, but it reduces the extent to which it hurts. Strategies to either get rid of ground water quickly or anticipation of standing water by raising the floor level are basic design decisions.
Who, then, is responsible for the damage caused by flooding? We all are. Those of us who have not passed on the wisdom of our grandfathers, who knew how to build so that while the storms would come, they would not destroy, are guilty of disrespecting tradition. Those of us who create developments that ignore the need for proper drainage so that we might “help” those people we say can’t afford an expensive lot, then cross our fingers that it will never rain again, are guilty of creating false expectations. Those of us who bad-mouth the developer who tries to solve the problem and whose lots are therefore more expensive, influence those who value our opinion to buy lots that are “affordable”, although they are subject to greater inconvenience and higher future costs.
The flood is not the problem. The flood is a fact of life, a circumstance. The problem is not having a way of dealing with the flood as an anticipated act of nature. By comparison with other acts of nature, the floods we see are puny, but our response to them (pretending they are national disasters) is excessive. Once upon a time, we responded to the climate with respect, anticipating the relatively minor inconvenience and building accordingly. Rich or poor, we built to be prepared for the hurricane, the rainstorm and the occasional flood. Perhaps it is time for us to return to the wisdom of our forefathers.
• Patrick Rahming & Associates is a full service design firm providing architectural, planning and design services throughout The Bahamas and the northern Caribbean. Visit its website at www.pradesigns.com and like its Facebook page. The firm’s mission is to help its clients turn their design problems into completed projects through a process of guided decision-making, responsible environmental advice and expert project administration.