In the Eye of the Storm: Designing Hotels for Intensifying Hurricanes

By
  • Sergio Saenz
  • Ellen Mitchell-Kozack

Dorian, Maria, Jose, Irma, Matthew and Michael. The names may not sound threatening, but these are the most unwelcome of all hotel guests — powerful hurricanes that unfortunately can’t be turned away at the reception desk.

Historically, residents and businesses in the Caribbean, Atlantic and Gulf Coasts have always dealt with hurricanes. But climate change has intensified storms: rising air from warming oceans make hurricanes more devastating, and rising sea levels increase storm surges that result in more — and worse — flooding.

From 2016 to 2019, the Atlantic Ocean experienced six Category 5 storms, with Hurricanes Irma and Michael decimating Puerto Rico in 2018. And in September 2019, Dorian swept through the Bahamas, crippling Grand Bahamas Island and rendering Grand Abaco Island unrecognizable.

The Caribbean Islands are heavily dependent on tourism for survival. The industry is responsible for roughly half of the Caribbean’s 13 sovereign states and 17 territories’ economies. Hotels and resorts designed to better withstand and recover from intense sustained winds and storm surge not only protects the owner’s asset, but helps the community and local economy become more resilient and bounce back more quickly following a hurricane.

Building codes are largely based on historical storm data and vary by region. The probability of future events provided by predictive weathercasting models doesn’t impact building codes currently, but is being used to inform project design with increasing frequency. What a client is willing to invest in resilient design strategies and building materials above and beyond the local code varies. And if a property hasn’t experienced a hurricane in decades, the return on investment may not pencil out.

The billions in losses, the deaths of 65 people and catastrophic damage inflicted upon southern Florida by Hurricane Andrew in 1992 prompted Miami-Dade County to rewrite its building codes, making them the most stringent on the books in the U.S. And while the Caribbean Island archipelago stretches across more than 1 million square miles of the Caribbean Sea and is subject to the same seasonal hurricane patterns as the U.S. mainland, much of the territories and island building codes are at least 20 years behind Miami-Dade.

If less-than-rigorous code for exterior wall waterproofing, roof construction and wind-resistant windows, shutters and doors is the standard in a vulnerable region, clients must consider that we’ve entered uncharted, new norms. Climate-induced uncertainty is forcing hoteliers and industry professionals to seriously consider extreme weather impacts and ramifications that we haven’t confronted previously.

But future-proofing and designing for building performance doesn’t require that we design concrete bunkers, fortresses with moats or sea walls that diminish views or beach front access. The HKS-designed, award-winning Belmond Cap Juluca resort, located on the island of Anguilla in the British West Indies, is one example.

Demolition for a design refresh and expansion at Cap Juluca, which first opened in 1988, was already underway when a trifecta of storms pummeled the region. Hurricane Irma swept through in 2017, followed by Hurricane Maria and yet a third storm, causing widespread property damage.

Before the renovation began, we studied the area’s historical weather data and other factors to inform passive design, but active resilience strategies were a tough sell. But Irma and Maria changed our approach and the project turned into a full-blown renovation. We learned firsthand that designing to code would not protect against future risk. We changed the window assemblies, doors and permeable façade and building penetrations to the Miami-Dade building code without sacrificing a beautiful, contextual design aesthetic.

We revisited the new building placements to ensure we could still maximize views and preferred ocean breezes, while maintaining the ability to have the building mass shield the open areas from predominant storm winds. Open space pavilions were designed to ensure they could be protected or removed in the event of a storm.  The resort’s structures were elevated above the storm surge historical high line, each seamlessly integrated within the surrounding landscape, making this passive design move completely invisible to guests and staff.

Passive design strategies require us to work with nature and not against it, taking advantage of sunlight, natural breezes and water features that are inherent within resort sites. Designing corridors, guest rooms and gathering spaces to maximize cross ventilation ensures that air flows through spaces naturally, minimizing reliance on mechanical systems to cool spaces and enhance guest comfort.

Active systems and low-consumption fixtures complement passive design strategies while conserving resources – a key factor in minimizing reliance on public utilities. Power outages following hurricanes can be lengthy, and on-site generators only last so long. These passive design strategies are not only useful in reducing energy consumption, but also align nicely with passive survivability, which means the building is habitable should the power supply be disrupted during a storm.

Cisterns for rainwater collection, PV systems, low-energy and water consumption appliances and fixtures, and native plantings and landscaping that absorb water and act as a natural barrier to rising seas and storm surge are all strategic design moves to help protect the survival and long term viability of hurricane-vulnerable assets.

Calling any design, construction technique or building material “hurricane proof” is misleading, particularly for Category 5 storms. Design strategies and construction material technologies are advancing as storms intensify, but design alone does not solve the problem if an operator fails to secure the building. 

Advanced planning and operator preparation before a storm hits is critical to mitigating property damage. Simple and pragmatic actions operators can take – such as opening doors and windows to let the storm blow through and putting outdoor furniture in the pool so a chaise lounge doesn’t become a projectile — should be part of the operator’s manual for hurricane preparation. 

Preventative and ongoing building maintenance is crucial to protecting any asset against storm damage. The entire resort, its buildings and systems must be well maintained to secure the site during a storm, ensuring it is as functional as it was at the time of installation.

As the planet warms and the seas rise, the industry’s collective mindset and approach must shift to better understand, anticipate and manage climate risk. Hoping that a hurricane changes course isn’t a risk mitigation strategy and only serves to increase potential loss exposure and negative return on investment. We must also consider the long-term viability of the local community — its people, economy and well-being. Sustainable and resilient design should no longer be viewed as an optional expense, but a smart and relatively inexpensive risk mitigation strategy if it’s addressed proactively in the design phase.

Sergio Saenz

Sergio Saenz is a Principal and Director of Hospitality at HKS. He creates landmark, resilient projects that help clients future-proof their assets against hurricanes and storm surge. Born in Texas and raised in Mexico, he was named to the Design Futures Council’s 40 Under 40 and received the Luis Barragan Design Media Award.

Ellen Mitchell-Kozack

Ellen Mitchell-Kozack is a Principal at HKS and Director of Sustainability and Citizen HKS, the firm's public interest design initiative that she founded. As a sustainability leader, she has managed more than 40 LEED projects and works with various clients and HKS teams to minimize environmental effects of architectural projects.