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Climate Change

Building With the Next Hurricane in Mind in Cuba

These windows are big and sunny, but unsafe during storms. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

HAVANA, Oct 5 2012 (IPS) - The main challenge that climate change poses for architecture in Cuba is that local residents themselves should be able to adapt and prepare their homes for the difficulties faced in this hurricane-prone island nation, said Dania González, a professor of architecture.

Cuba has a serious housing shortage, aggravated by the impact of hurricanes like Ike, Gustav and Paloma, which damaged over 647,000 homes in 2008, including nearly 85,000 that totally collapsed, as part of an estimated 10 billion dollars in economic losses.

The greater intensity of storms, predicted as a direct effect of climate change, combined with the gradual decline in construction of housing since 2007 and the dilapidated state of many housing units, threatens to aggravate the problem.

The housing situation in this country of 11.2 million people was assessed in the census carried out in September, whose results have not yet been released.

The previous census, conducted in 2002, found 3,534,327 housing units that were home to an average of three people each, and revealed that 15 percent of all homes in urban areas and 38 percent in rural areas were in poor condition.

Above and beyond these problems that require major investments to solve, climate change exposes Cuba not only to more destructive hurricanes, but also to higher temperatures, recurrent drought and intense rains, while the projected rise in the sea level will endanger coastal areas.

“We know what the threats and challenges are, and what we need to do is create architecture that manages to transform and adapt,” said González, an architect and the director of graduate studies at the José Antonio Echeverría Higher Polytechnic Institute (CUJAE) in Havana.

There is no one single strategy. “In countries like ours, which have scarce resources, you have to think of flexible, transformable, changeable, adaptable solutions – there is no single alternative that will let you live normally in a natural, appropriate environment,” she said in an interview with IPS.

González said the risks posed by a hurricane differ depending on the urban area. In Havana’s densely populated neighbourhoods of old, run-down buildings, for example, the biggest danger is flooding and building collapses caused by heavy rains.

But in other parts of the capital, where there is more space between buildings, the biggest danger is the wind, which can reach speeds of 120 to 260 km an hour or more during a hurricane. In this case, one of the most common forms of damage is the loss of roofs.

Sometimes fortress-like buildings are constructed, reinforced to resist hurricane-force winds, especially in provinces where storms are most frequent.

But academics at CUJAE advocate “well-placed and well-designed” light structures, as well as additional measures when necessary. González said, however, that “these are matters that cannot be dealt with in a blanket fashion, because the solution depends on the specific place, on what is the biggest risk in each case.”

She said that in the case of overhanging roofs, residents should be able to fold them up or dismantle them. And in the case of latticework, they should be able to put up a panel, to keep the wind out. In addition, windows should be tightly sealed.

“Sustainable architecture requires flexibility and adaptability, which means that when a hurricane hits, the overhanging roof can become a wall that protects us,” González said.

“The level of risk depends on the context,” she said, adding that the home has to be “liveable on a daily basis but also safe from cyclones.”

For the weather conditions in Cuba, where summers are hot and humidity levels are high year-round, near total protection against direct sunlight and rain is necessary.

That means natural ventilation in homes is important, as well as natural light, from indirect sunlight.

González said people should tap into Cuba’s “best and most intelligent” traditions in “vernacular architecture.” Bringing the past to the present and “reinterpreting and adapting it” to the current conditions is another challenge, she said.

But it is a question of “learning from, rather than returning to, the past,” she stressed.

“The first principle of our best architecture, with similarities in the entire Caribbean region, is protection against the sun’s rays,” she said.

“It has to be architecture that provides shade, preferably green shade, because that’s the kind that absorbs heat. It is a question of protecting while at the same time ventilating as much as possible,” she added.

Appropriate furniture, like the traditional rocking chair where the person increases natural ventilation while sitting on it, and elements that provide isolation against direct sunlight when necessary, were also mentioned by González among the techniques that improve comfort during periods of high temperatures.

“With respect to climate change, the biggest challenge is coming up with intelligent architecture, to allow people themselves to be able to adapt to their difficulties,” she said.

That is a principle of sustainability “learned from the living world, where those who lack the ability to adapt perish,” she added.

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