An interview with Anthony Abbate, Florida Atlantic University
As part of its series “The Business of Climate Change,” which highlights the climate views of business men and women throughout the state, The Invading Sea spoke with Anthony Abbate, professor at the School of Architecture and director of the Metrolab for the Broward Campuses of Florida Atlantic University.
Here are some highlights from the interview.
As a Fort Lauderdale native, you’ve witnessed climate-related changes over the years. What has affected you most personally or made an impact on how you approach your work?
I’ve seen a lot of change in my lifetime. I live in what’s considered high ground in Broward County, and personally, as a resident, I must say, I’ve noticed quite a lot of changes recently.
Most notably was when we built our house back in 1996, the survey indicated that our property was at elevation 12 feet, which I considered mountainous, and we were high and dry. That put us in a flood zone X, which meant we weren’t required to have flood insurance. But recently we’ve done some upgrades to the house with regard to the site drainage because we’ve noticed the water table is getting higher.
Some of our landscaping is changing as a result of the change to the water table, and we wanted to upgrade our site drainage. And so we had it re-surveyed and we noticed that officially we’ve dropped a few feet. So I’m no longer at 12 feet; I’m at elevation 10.
That was one thing. The other is that we are focused a lot and we spent a lot of money on how we collect rainwater stored on site and allow it to percolate naturally to avoid any kind of flooding in the event we have too much rain.
And I’m noticing that the while it’s hard to measure rainfall across the year—it doesn’t look like it changes that much over the years—but what does change is the intensity of the rain, how much rain falls within an hour, and being able to manage that water collection and drainage from the house is an important architectural consideration that we’ve learned firsthand.
So we’ve taken that into consideration. We’ve also installed solar panels and gone fully electric with our cars as a way to address the underlying cause of climate change, which has basically to do with carbon emissions.
What are some of the core ideas you try to instill in your students at FAU with regard to sustainability and resilience?
First is this notion of building and sharing data globally. What are the best practices to contribute to a global effort for quick adaptation? We don’t really have very good tools to share data and best practices, critically and openly, and there’s very little open source when it comes to this.
And as a profession, architecture is somewhat competitive as an environment in the design and building industry similarly, so it’s hard to advance knowledge at the pace that we need to to address these challenges.
So it’s important to think of competitive advantage as being not about the data that you have itself but how you make decisions with that information. There’s an ethical dimension to this and we focus a lot on that in school, not just through our design-studio courses but our design-theory courses.
I also ask the students to really think about diverse and multiple approaches to this challenge. Architecture by nature is a collaborative endeavor. We see ourselves as the conductor of the orchestra and in education we’ve been taught to understand the site is a given. The land is permanent and immovable, which really relates to the definition of real estate, consistent with fundamental definitions of land being transferable.
But what we ask the students now, what I do in my studios and in my urban-design courses, is what if we consider the site as impermanent, appearing and disappearing with the tides or underwater entirely? What implications does this have for the built environment? Do we build on stilts? Do we construct artificial islands? Do we replace cars on pavement with amphibious vehicles that can travel in water and land?
So this whole idea of looking at it from a large scale as well as the site scale is a big part of what we do. We look at maps. How do we distinguish land and water when we look at continents and countries and boundaries? So we’re asking students to think beyond what they’re presented with into what’s behind the data: how is it presented and is it presented in a way that’s useful?
What are the biggest climate-related challenges for architects and planners right now?
There are a number of them. One is: who will lead the vision relating to climate change? Architects see themselves as leading the vision because that’s what they’re trained to do. But the answer to that question may be an unlikely source, but it’s important for architects as professionals to be able to expand the dialogue, raise awareness of problems that we’re facing as architects, but also as engineers as planners, as insurance and banking professionals and Realtors, we’re all trying to seek solutions.
There are all kinds of solutions out there, but none of them in and of itself is sufficient to move us forward. There needs to be a clear overriding vision. The other thing that we need to be aware of is that a lot of times we’re limited with this notion of what I call short-termism, particularly in Florida.
Not only do governments have short horizons for planning—about five years, and election cycles are a big part of that as well—but short-term thinking in terms of investment, and therefore design program. If you’re only thinking about a five or 10-year horizon, you’re not going to be thinking about climate change, and basically what you’re doing is you’re designing built environment so that eventually you’re just passing the problems and passing the issue to future owners who eventually are going to be left holding the bag. And that is an unsustainable proposition.
Have building codes and design standards kept up with the changing climate?
They’re out of sync. They’re slowly catching up. The difficulty, of course, is: what parts of the code are we talking about? On one hand, and this gets back to this question of vision—who’s leading the vision, what is it that we’re after? A lot of the talk that I’m witness to has to do with resistance and how to resist or design to adapt to sea-level rise, all well and good.
However, the underlying cause of sea-level rise is carbon emissions. So how much of the code is encouraging and incentivizing alternatives to fossil fuel-burning systems, over-reliance on air conditioning, over-reliance on the automobile or the combustion engine, on generators and things of that nature?
So the code needs to be tackling this on multiple levels and across different industries and incentivizing alternatives. One alternative that we teach our students is something called “passive design.”
We had a whole history of designing for climate, up until the 1950s, when the air conditioning and mechanical systems became more affordable and basically took over. And after that, architecture was no longer concerned with designing for climate and thermal comfort in hot, humid climates. We just seal the box and air conditioning and the building codes enshrine that attitude, that philosophy, by requiring air conditioning and then requiring the sealing of the box and the insulation.
They’re really not addressing the issue; what they’re doing is making sure that if you’re going to air condition you do it efficiently, not in a way that is truly reducing the carbon imprint. So these are deep, sort of philosophical, if you will, or vision statements that need to happen. And I think the code is sort of focused more on basically sealing the box and not so much on incentivizing alternatives to that.
Are there any common misconceptions about sustainable design? Are there particular topics where we need more awareness?
I think there are a number of them. One of them for me has always been about language and the language we use to discuss this. When we talk about resilience, we need to realize that resilience is a short-term form of adaptation.
It presumes that a system, a building, a piece of infrastructure, can return to its original state. That may be for hurricanes and that’s perfect. We do a very effective resilient design format for buildings against hurricanes. So the idea is that after a hurricane your building can return to its original state. You’ve sealed it, you’ve protected it, etcetera.
When it comes to climate change, adaptation can only go so far because the whole premise there is that you’re maintaining original functions. What we’re faced with in the next 100 years, and this gets back to the timeline horizon, are conditions that demand more than adaptation. We’re not going to return to any original state if the site is inundated.
And I use the word “inundated” because it’s not a flood situation that comes and goes. It is an inundation, i.e., a site now becomes underwater. That changes the game entirely. So from a design standpoint, that calls for transformation and thinking transformatively, not adaptively or in terms of resiliency. Transformation creates new systems that we need to survive under these new conditions.
It envisions cities on platforms, it envisions raising things up on piers so the water flows underneath, it envisions maybe constructing new islands, dredging and filling like we used to do to build higher ground. That’s transformative because that is not returning to its original state; it’s actually changing the state. So that’s an important concept because whenever we use the term “resiliency,” we’re really talking about bouncing back and that’s not going to happen with climate change.
Kevin Mims, a Florida-based freelance journalist, is the producer of “The Business of Climate Change.” He conducted this interview with Mr. Abbate.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state.