Perspectives 03.02.2020

Inspired to Action: Design Meets Disaster Response

By Jennifer Ingram and Lauren Neefe

The 2017 Hurricane Season resulted in more disaster survivors registering for assistance than the previous 10 years combined (2017 Hurricane Season FEMA After-Action Report, July 12, 2018). In addition to hurricanes Irma, Harvey, and Maria, the U.S. was battling the California wildfires. The impacts of natural disasters have been devastating and seem to be increasing in frequency and magnitude.

As a result of the mounting need for resources and answers, the Atlanta studio’s Dan Watch, Science and Technology Practice Leader, and Jennifer Ingram, Project Architect, teamed together to establish Perkins&Will’s Design and Disaster Response Working Group. To aid the team in the campaign, Lauren Neefe, the Atlanta studio’s resident writer, was called to help tell their story.

A writer and editor, Lauren Neefe joined our Atlanta studio in 2019 and contributes her storytelling skills across the firm.
Thoughts by Lauren Neefe

It has been raining for over a month in Atlanta. It’s getting dreary and a little bit old, but I still kind of like having an excuse to wear my rainboots and tromp through the puddles under my umbrella. I imagine it’s a cupola, and I’m peering out for signs of sun.

It’s an inconvenience, the rain. In summer it’s a distraction from the hot.

But what would I do if my city just washed away? If everything I relied on were torn apart and broken? What if the essentials were gone, never mind the conveniences?

Here I am, a writer in a multidisciplinary architecture firm, surrounded by architects, designers, and planners. If anyone has good answers to these questions, my colleagues do. And as it happens, two colleagues in particular, Jennifer Ingram and Dan Watch, have dedicated themselves to answering the challenges our changing climate is putting to us with design-informed, cross-organizational strategies.

The culmination of this effort is an Atlanta-based Design and Disaster Response Working Group, which convened for the first time just a couple of weeks ago. The meeting was off the clock, but I made time to go. Jennifer kicked off the meeting by inviting everyone to introduce themselves and their interest in the group.

Thoughts by Jennifer Ingram

As an architect, I want to use my skill sets and interests for good by actively engaging with the current events that affect the built environment. Every day I work alongside some 170 other designers, putting together buildings and landscapes and districts and cities, sometimes from scratch, often from inherited structures. I love my job because I get to coordinate the talent and experiences of my colleagues into well-balanced teams that daily solve problems in design, construction, systems, and infrastructure. The AIA puts it this way in its Disaster Assistance Handbook: we are exceptionally prepared to “anticipate the impacts of disruptions in the built environment.”

And yet I took FEMA director Brock Long’s opening letter for the 2017 After-Action Report as a call to action: Assessing the response to the devastation of Hurricanes Irma, Harvey, and Maria, as well as the wildfires in California, Long observed that “the challenges we faced required that we innovate and deliver our programs differently.” He was talking about the government, but I felt inspired to action. Innovation is every designer’s wheelhouse. It was time to step up.

Jennifer Ingram joined the Atlanta studio in 2014 as an architect and is a part of our Science and Technology team.

And an opportunity had presented itself. A week after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico that September, the CEO of the CDC Foundation, Dr. Judy Monroe, called Dan to solicit our expertise, and I was tapped to study the possibilities. That felicitous tap sent me down an emergency-response rabbit hole, of which the 2017 After-Action report only scratched the surface. One Innovation Incubator, several speaking engagements, and a Young Architects Forum later, I am launching a Design and Disaster Response Working Group from our Atlanta Studio.

The first meeting gathered about 20 people representing architecture, of course, but also landscape, urban design, healthcare, research, and other disciplines — as well as professionals with emergency-response expertise from outside the design industry.

As we start the design process and figure out our next moves, the overarching mission is clear: to help those impacted by large-scale, acute disasters with implementable solutions.

Step 1 is divide and conquer. We are researching and studying existing approaches to disaster response and preparedness. We’ve scheduled our next meeting in a month’s time, when we’ll put our heads back together and make some decisions about where we want to target our energy.

Step 2 is where we stretch ourselves a little to pair our innovation with the expertise of the people who have been on the ground longer. It’s clear that we need to be regularly engaging emergency-response teams for feedback on our ideas.

Breakout session with students at Emory University
The first Design and Disaster Relief symposium, led by Dan and Jennifer.

Collaboration is a basic principle of design, but what I’ve learned in the last two years is that problems can be so vast that we often don’t know where to start or who else is out there working on the same thing. If we can get designers and emergency-response experts gathered around the same table, we can connect problems and design solutions, pushing the response toward innovation. I want people to know they can call on us.

One of the most rewarding and promising outcomes of the Design and Disaster Relief day-long symposium Dan and I organized for the AIA Atlanta’s Young Architects Forum last December was the number of connections that were made. Leading voices in emergency response and leading voices in innovation were all focused on the same topic with a shared desire to use their interests and skill sets for good.

The event began with a panel of representatives from the Department of Homeland Security, the Bahamian government, FEMA, CDC Foundation, and the Center for Humanitarian Emergencies at Emory University, sharing their experiences and perspectives on the need for innovation in emergency-response scenarios—which, if you can believe it, nearly half of the attendees had witnessed firsthand or at one degree of separation.

After this panel’s innovation “brief,” attendees then split into groups and brainstormed ideas for how the design community can plug in: start a database of ideas? collect design typologies that have withstood disasters in the past? influence policy and building codes?

These ideas were answered in turn by a panel of stories from Duke Energy, New Story Charity, and Perkins&Will’s own Yanel de Angel’s ResilientSEE initiative to close out the day. Each organization is iterating technological solutions to address catastrophic change.

How fortunate are we that Dr. Monroe called on us that day back in September 2017? In a recent conversation with Dan, he said, “The people who attended and ideas shared were much better than I expected. We have the opportunity to grow this effort into something very meaningful. This is very exciting.” Speaking for myself, it has these last two years become my personal mission to put to best possible use my gift for gathering intelligence around the table and corralling it toward the realizable solution.

That’s what the Design and Disaster Response Working Group is all about. We aren’t at the point of innovation yet, but we’re ready to jump in. Call on us.


To learn more about the Design and Disaster Response Working Group, please reach out to Jennifer Ingram at [email protected]