The US government is spending nearly $1bn on six projects to protect Greater New York from floods

An artists impression of the Big U park on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Image: Rebuild By Design/BIG Team.

In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit the north eastern United States. The storm plunged many of the region’s cities into darkness, left millions without electricity and several dozen dead.

Much of the worst damage done by the storm was the result of flooding, when waves three feet higher than had ever been recorded hit New York City. Among the many shocking images to come out of the disaster, perhaps the most striking were those of the city’s subway tunnels flooded with water.

And so, in the aftermath of the storm, the US Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) launched its “Rebuild by Design” competition. Its goal was to bring together architects, engineers, ecologists and communities to find ways of making the heavily populated coastal region less vulnerable to flooding.

In June 2014, HUD announced that six projects would be going ahead, and sharing $930m in government funding. Each seeks not only to improve the city’s flood protection, but to regenerate areas of its waterfront. And on Friday, Rebuild By Design is holding an event to celebrate its second anniversary and discuss how the projects are going.

So, what are these projects? Here’s a quick guide:


The Big U – Lower Manhattan

The Big U is named for the fact that it is, in fact, a Big U: a 10 mile “flood protection ribbon”, stretching from West 57th Street, round the tip of Manhattan, to East 42nd street.

The initial stage of the project will be a 24 foot berm (that is, raised strip of land) at the East River Park on the Lower East side. A key part of the scheme is improving the physical connections between the new and improved waterfront and communities inland, previously cut off from the park by a raised highway. That road, FDR Drive, will also be fitted with deployable walls, which can be closed when the flood waters rise, protecting the homes and businesses behind it.

The project will also feature the “big bench” – a strip of raised land, doubling as street furniture. Cool. Here’s a video:

Proposers: BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) with One Architecture, Starr Whitehouse, James Lima Planning + Development, Project Projects, Green Shield Ecology, AEA Consulting, Level Agency for Infrastructure, Arcadis, and the Parsons School of Constructed Environments.


Resist, Delay, Store, Discharge – Hudson County, New Jersey

This one is meant to improve flood protection on the Jersey Shore, west of Manhattan, and, well, it does what it says on the tin. The main interventions involved are:

  • “hard infrastructure and soft landscape” to improve coastal defences (resist);
  • exploring ways of slowing the path of rainwater runoff (delay);

  • introducing green infrastructure to hold and direct water (store);
  • and introducing water pumps and alternative drainage routes (discharge).

The idea of the project is both to both reduce flooding itself, and limit its impact when it does happen.

Proposers: OMA with Royal HaskoningDHV; Balmori Associates; and HR&A Advisors.


Living with the Bay – Nassau County, Long Island

This project starts with the obviously-true-but-mildly-depressing comment that there are no “silver bullet” solutions on offer to the problem of flooding in a coastal city. Boo.


Instead, though, it promises a series of connected interventions. In no particular order, that means:

  • creating new marshes and dikes; 

  • improving rivers to store and dispose of flood waters, and turning the areas round them into new public space;

  • creating new marsh islands in the wetlands;
  • and adding flood defences-cum-public amenities to the Barrier Island.

Interboro / Apex / Bosch Slabbers / Deltares / H+N+S / Palmbout / IMG Rebel with Center for Urban Pedagogy, David Rusk, NJIT Infrastructure Planning Program, Project Projects, RFA Investments, TU Delft.


Living Breakwaters – Staten Island

This one's fun, not least because part of it's called the “Billion Oyster Project”.


It promises a “reef street” of new breakwaters – new habitats for finfish, shellfish, and lobsters, which will double as flood protection.


In addition, there'll be a new network of “programmed waterhubs”, community centres where the locals can rent kayaks, hold meetings, or learn about the local aquatic habitat.

Proposers: SCAPE/LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE with Parsons Brinckerhoff, Dr. Philip Orton / Stevens Institute of Technology, Ocean & Coastal Consultants, SeArc Ecological Consulting, LOT-EK, MTWTF, The Harbor School and Paul Greenberg.


New Meadowlands – Bergen County, New Jersey

This one will combine transport links and ecology with a whole new development zone.


It'll create new wetlands in the form of the Meadowpark – a big natural reserve open to the public, featuring a whole system or berms and marshes. Behind that will sit the “Meadowband” (yes), featuring streets, a new Bus Rapid Transit line (woohoo!), and series of public spaces.

The plan is to replace single storey warehouses with a new, more urban zone: basically, it’s regeneration and property development, with added flood protection.

Proposers: MIT CAU + ZUS + URBANISTEN with Deltares; 75B; and Volker Infra Design.


Hunts Point Lifelines – South Bronx

This area is the food storage hub for much of New York City, but also one of the poorest communities in the region. The Lifelines project will protect it from future flooding by turning the underused industrial riverfront into a "waterfront greenway".


Once again, flood protection combined with new public amenities is the order of the day. The centrepiece of the project is a new open air market, to make more of the district's role as the city's bread basket and boost the local economy.

There’ll also be a “a Levee Lab of designed ecologies and applied material research”. So, there you go.

Proposers: PennDesign / OLIN with HR&A Advisors, eDesign Dynamics, Level Infrastructure, Barretto Bay Strategies, McLaren Engineering Group, Philip Habib & Associates, Buro Happold.

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All images courtesy of and the project teams.


Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.

Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.