Four Design Lessons I Learned from Hurricane Sandy

Ten years ago this month, Superstorm Sandy — which had been Hurricane Sandy just days before — slammed into New York City. Despite no longer being officially a hurricane, the storm packed “hurricane-force winds” that made a devastating impact on the tri-state area.

Back then, in October 2012, I was a college senior facing my most difficult semester yet. The biggest way Sandy affected me — at first — was that it gave me a reprieve from classes.

Growing up in the mountains of Northeastern Pennsylvania, I became used to snow days and late starts. But my college friends, most of whom were lifelong New Yorkers, rarely had school days off due to weather events. On October 29th, the City University of New York shut down campuses across all five boroughs and canceled classes for the rest of the week, an action that previously would have seemed unthinkable. It was a signal that things were going to be bad — a signal I glossed over.

Naively taking pleasure in the unexpected break, I invited friends who lived nearby over to my apartment. In the elevated safety of Harlem’s Hamilton Heights neighborhood — one of the highest points in Manhattan — we only saw the lights flicker a few times. We played games and laughed as the rain poured outside.

Elsewhere in the city, those same rains were flooding subway stations, causing major power outages, damaging buildings and submerging houses in the Atlantic Ocean. The city ordered 375,000 New Yorkers to evacuate their homes while I simply rode out the storm.

During the last 10 years, I’ve come a long way from being a college student who didn’t understand the impact of natural disasters or feel an immediate responsibility to help. Working alongside architects and engineers, I’ve gained insights into the value of designing for resilience and well-being.

Here are four things I learned because of Sandy and how I see HKS working to better shape stronger, more resilient communities:

1 – Building Beyond Code and Designing for Resilience Matter

Sandy resulted in 43 deaths and $19 billion in damage in New York City and 233 deaths and $70 billion in damage throughout the United States and the Caribbean. Among the massive number of evacuations and property impairments during Sandy, approximately 6,500 New York City hospital and nursing home patients were evacuated, and many health care facilities were damaged. I soon realized how crucial it is for hospitals, clinics and skilled care facilities to be able to operate continuously — and that additional evacuations brought on due to failing structures are dangerous for everyone, especially vulnerable populations with critical health issues.

In subsequent years, I’ve discovered that many standard building codes in the United States often simply ensure that people can survive a disaster if one occurs while they are inside a structure, but don’t necessarily ensure that buildings can functionally operate and properly shelter people during and after harmful weather events. I’ve learned that the value of designing for resilience is about far more than protecting buildings from damage, but also supporting people and their ability to lead happy, healthy lives.

Architects who strive to build beyond baseline codes are leading the design industries forward to create resilient, high performing buildings that support both life safety and continuous operations. High-performance design is embedded in HKS’ mission; the firm’s designers work around the world in diverse climates and cities that experience all types of natural disasters — from tsunamis in the Asia Pacific region to hurricanes in U.S. Southeast. Building beyond code, they design health care settings, and residential and senior living communities where people can live and receive vital care 24/7.

2 – Equitable Access to Services and Amenities is Essential

Close to 2 million people lost power in New York City during Sandy. Some of the most powerful images I saw on TV were of makeshift phone charging stations created by generous people who still had electricity so neighbors could charge their phones and contact loved ones. New Yorkers, myself included, also went several days without riding public transportation, as ferry, bus and subway service stoppages left nearly 5.5 million weekday riders without transportation.

During Sandy, many New York and New Jersey residents set up mobile device charging stations for neighbors without power. (Photo by Michael Bocchieri/Getty Images; Hoboken, NJ)

Sandy helped me realize how beneficial it can be to live in a neighborhood designed with the things we need close to home — grocery stores, emergency care, parks and public space amenities like electrical outlets and bathrooms.  Where I live now in Northwest Washington, DC, I have access to most of these things within a few blocks of home, but that’s not true for everyone in my city or in others around the world.

In addition to being necessary in the event of power outages and transit stoppages, public amenities and easy access to basic services can provide a higher quality of life year-round. Communities designed and planned with an equity-centered approach reflect the needs, desires and aspirations of people and who live in them. Using a Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (J.E.D.I.) lens, HKS designers collaborate with cities and communities, strengthening how the built environment can best serve people — providing design solutions that make living more convenient, even in times of disaster.

3 – Adaptable Public Spaces Provide Value in Communities

Though more than 1 million children and 250,000 CUNY students were out of class, many NYC public schools remained open to serve a different purpose during Sandy. Schools and public spaces throughout the five boroughs transformed into emergency relief centers, including the gymnasium at The City College of New York just two blocks from my apartment, where approximately 200 people received shelter, food, and internet access after evacuating their homes.

Before seeing people seek shelter on campus, I hadn’t quite considered all the possible multi-purpose uses of buildings I entered each day. More than places that can provide relief in emergencies, schools and other public buildings like libraries often accommodate a wide variety of activities for different populations daily. In my DC neighborhood, for example, there is an elementary school that plays double duty as a community center for after-hours fitness classes and local meetings.

Designing for flexibility and adaptability can maximize the potential of the built environment during emergency and non-emergency situations. Design strategies for shared space are increasingly being applied to public sector spaces like schools, colleges, and government building as well as commercial developments. HKS education, commercial, and hospitality designers are innovating new multi-use spaces that promote connection, offer more options for activities like shopping, working, dining, and gathering — with the goal to provide more beneficial environments for future uses, including unexpected emergency uses.

4 – Integrated Approaches Benefit People and Planet

In Sandy’s aftermath, I walked through my neighborhood and saw century-old trees downed in green spaces and cemeteries. Across the city, the storm damaged approximately 20,000 trees and nearly 400 parks had to close for major repairs. For months, caution tape cordoned off sections of local parks where families and neighbors could no longer get together for social events or enjoy fresh air outside of our densely populated apartment buildings.

Approximately 20,000 trees were downed in NYC during Sandy, including this one in the Battery Park neighborhood. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images; New York, NY)

Noticing how members of my community adapted by finding different places to gather such as sidewalks or park stairs, it really struck me that design is about more than creating architecture, buildings, or rooms — it is about creating places. Places like public parks and green spaces are more than just essential for civic life, they are also essential for our planet’s health. Designing for both people and planet — considering landscape, structures and potential climate shifts and weather events — can support both human and environmental well-being into the future.

Working in the architecture, engineering and construction industry today, I see the call for integrated design becoming more urgent. With holistic strategies and collaborative processes, design professionals can reduce buildings’ impact on the environment and create places that uplift people. Driven by a commitment to the firm’s Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) structure, HKS is leading conversations and moving toward more holistic, inclusive and sustainable design practices. HKS architects, designers, researchers, advisory professionals are creating leading projects with innovation and design excellence. Smarter and integrated sustainable building practices are non-negotiable in the fight to limit the effects of global warming and prevent natural disasters like Sandy from worsening over time.

Thinking Back, Looking Forward

Experiencing Sandy in New York was a key part of my journey to understanding the value, relevance and role of design in society. While it was the first time my eyes were really opened to the impacts of disaster, countless major emergencies have upended lives and caused harm to human and environmental well-being in the years since.

Many of my observations from Sandy — about the importance of outdoor space, the need for better access to basic needs, and the necessity of safe havens — have resonated even more strongly in the wake of other global natural disasters and during the COVID pandemic. From conducting research on pandemic-resilient communities and hospitals to designing hotels for intensifying hurricanes and delivering projects that can bounce back quickly after disasters, HKS designers prioritize recovery and resilience across sectors and around the world.

Many years later, and many miles from the apartment where I took it easy during Sandy, I’m still learning from the storm’s effects. It’s not a comfort that our future is uncertain; the threats of climate change are ever-growing. More disasters are inevitable. But with equitable, integrated design, we can rise to the challenges of a changing planet — and create places that help people survive and thrive.