If North Texas lives in Tornado Alley, then South Texas resides in cyclone country. On average, a major hurricane lashes the Gulf Coast every six years. Always there is a high cost. Often there is the loss of life. Not long ago, there was the deadliest natural disaster ever to strike the United States.
Galveston at the turn of the 20th century was Texas’ largest city, bigger than nearby Houston, and one of the wealthiest communities in the country. That ended in an apocalyptic weekend when the entire barrier island slipped beneath the waves. An estimated 8,000 people drowned in the Great Storm of 1900, one-fifth of the city’s population.
Approximately sixty hurricanes have hit the Houston-Galveston region since then and the duration of tropical storms is growing, making them ever more dangerous. The latest was slow-moving Hurricane Harvey. Fifty to sixty inches of rain fell on Houston from August 26 to 28, 2017, swamping hundreds of thousands of buildings. Thirty-seven thousand people fled their homes, and 10,000 people had to be rescued. There were 68 deaths. Houston is called the Bayou City for a good reason. America’s fourth most populous city is a patchwork of watersheds drained by 2,500 miles of rivers and channels emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricanes unleash their greatest fury on those living in floodplains or alongside drainage canals.
Pachamama, the Inca goddess of earth and time, watched Harvey from an oak tree near Buffalo Bayou. The World’s Mother has presided over land, sea, Sun, and Moon since life began. Scientifically minded readers will recognize Pachamama’s domain as the elements of weather. Some study atmospherics, measure air pressure and temperature and calculate moisture to judge the wind and predict, which is useful. Mother Nature, however, feels the wind and understands. That’s evolution.
Which is why, on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey, we invited Pachamama to sit down with the architect of one of the few bayou-front homes in Houston that did not flood. We sought a discussion about the Earth’s eroding climate and what architects could do about it. When Mother Nature did not reply to our e-mails, we asked author Richard Buday (who channels spirits on occasion) to conduct the interview on Her behalf. The following is a transcript of their conversation, as put down by your editor, including some handwritten notes.
RB: Richard Buday
DAW: David Adam Wiggs
Today is August 27, 2018. David Wiggs and I are chatting under the gentle arms of a water oak, ensconced in humidity. We’re sitting on lawn chairs. He’s wearing a pull-over shirt and appears comfortable. I’m in a stretch polo, sweating. Still, it’s tolerable under this leafy canopy, thanks to Texas-sized mugs of ice tea. The haze that fogged my eyeglasses après air-conditioning has now evaporated and in the distance I see two houses swelter in morning light. One is an award-winning Miesian pavilion floating four feet off the ground. Maison de Mom was designed by the late architect Allison Eve for her mother. The other building is a high-tech home built by architect David Wiggs for himself. David’s house is made from shipping containers that move up and down like an offshore oil platform. It’s known as the Jack Rig House. Both structures back up to Buffalo Bayou, a usually lazy river flowing from the Katy Prairie to the Gulf of Mexico.
Superficially, the juxtaposition of these buildings is a tale of two architectures: Modernism and Cargotecture. On a deeper level, though, it is a comparison between similar, yet fundamentally different, design approaches to climate change. Beyond that, I sense the relationship is even more profound.
Thank you, David, for agreeing to speak with me. At this time last year, Buffalo Bayou had surged out of its banks and inundated square miles of neighborhoods.
Yeah, it’s not a happy memory. (David looks grim – Ed.)
In my hand is a photograph taken after Harvey, about where you and I now sit. You must have been swimming when you snapped it because the water looks frightfully high.
Actually, I was in a kayak. I’d been treading water for hours when an alligator showed up. It was acting a little too curious, so I got into…I mean, Allison’s boat was still floating near…. (David put his hand up and asked for a short break. – Ed.)
Sorry about that. You were referring to Allison Eve, whom I understand was a close friend. Are you okay continuing?
Allison described Plinth Architecture as buildings on piloti—short stilts—and offered it as the solution to Houston’s flood-prone bayous. The Modernist house to our left is where she lived, worked, and tragically died when Maison de Mom flooded in last year’s storm. Your home on the right survived unscathed. The difference was your place had motors attached to its stilts. How high can you jack up your house?
Fifteen feet, maximum.
Wow. As fellow architects, did you and Allison discuss the pros and cons of your approaches?
(David closed his eyes, but he at last smiled. Call it a wry grin. – Ed.) Um, not exactly discuss. More like verbally beat each other up.
She and I agreed that Houstonians must build off the ground to survive rising seas. Where we disagreed was on degree. Allison designed all of her residential projects to withstand four or five feet of water. She thought that would hold Mother Nature back for a generation or two. But Harvey pushed Buffalo Bayou six feet above grade around here. I told her things would get worse, but she was convinced climate change could be stabilized. She was an optimist, I guess.
Which would make you a pessimist. So tell me about your design.
I think of it as Charles Eames meets offshore drilling. Eames made magic with off-the-shelf components from a variety of industries. The structure of my house is a pre-engineered steel frame. Living spaces are four intermodal shipping carriers salvaged from the Port of Houston, renovated and outfitted in a shop. They were delivered to the site on trucks and stacked two stories high. The jacking motors are from a retired small drilling platform.
How does the lifting mechanism work?
There are worm gears attached to the inner four columns. I generally keep the first floor two feet above grade, but I have a switch in the kitchen to lift the house in the event of a flood. There’s a high water sensor near the ground to raise the platform automatically if I’m not home. I also have a phone app that alerts me of rising water and allows me to remote in.
So you designed a kit-of-parts house and paired it with a drilling platform run by a computer. Cool. How long did it take to erect the structure, place the shipping containers, and install the motors?
About a week.
What happens if there’s no power to run the jack motors? Electricity is the first to go in a hurricane.
I have a Tesla battery that lasts a week. In fact, I can live entirely off the grid. The roof has solar tiles and is motorized to track the sun’s altitude. When pitched more than an inch per foot, it sheds rainwater into a collection tank behind the house. For sewage, I have a septic system. My only limiting factor is food, and for that, I built lots of storage for canned and dry goods. I figure I can fish from my balcony if need be.
And I notice your Jeep has a snorkel.
Yeah. Always prepared, you know.
But I don’t understand why you left the shipping container doors attached. Why would you need them if you can raise yourself above a flood?
I modified the steel doors to bi-fold against the sides. The front and back of my house face large trees, which, in high wind, could be a problem. I use the doors as shutters against flying debris.
I see. How big is the house? And how secure is it against hurricane force winds like uplift?
It’s just under 1,550 square feet: two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, living, and dining room. Typical shipping containers are eight feet wide by eight feet tall by 40-foot long. They’re built sturdy for transiting the ocean, strapped topside to ships. My modules are high-cube 48-footers, which have additional reinforcing and are securely tied down. Pretty sure I can take whatever Mother Nature dishes out.
I remember Allison as something of a force of nature herself, full of ideas, practical and theoretical. Tell me more about her reaction to your motorized plinth?
At first, she was critical, but later she saw possibilities that I didn’t. I found a tube of her drawings stuck in mud outside Maison de Mom after the storm. In it were sketches of my house. Some of her thumbnails were refinements of my details, but mostly she had bigger plans. One of her drawings was an entire town that could be jacked up and down.
It sounds like you two were kindred spirits. (As Richard topped off his drink, David lifted the photograph from Richard’s hand. – Ed.)
It feels like I knew her forever, although it wasn’t more than a few weeks. I think about her a lot. (If I had to describe David’s face at this point, I’d say it was somewhere between smitten and sullen. – Ed.)
How does this all play out, David? What does Houston look like in, say, fifteen or twenty years?
By then we may have standing water in the streets, even without a storm overhead. Allison imagined cities that could raise and lower themselves with the tide. I like that vision. I think it can be made real.
But will architects actually design that way? Today, Buffalo Bayou is back to a placid stream. People are jogging along its bank. An osprey is fishing. Not to sound complacent, but the apocalypse has faded from memory.
Yeah, we’re sitting here during peak hurricane season with no Gulf storms on the radar. The world’s gone back to sleep. They called Hurricane Harvey a thousand-year storm, a fluke. I guess people are counting on that to be true.
Do you believe Harvey was a fluke?
Hell no. Harvey is the new normal. I think we’re perched on the abyss of long-term climate change. We’ve reached the tipping point, about to plunge over the edge. Sea levels will rise sixty meters, and sooner not later. Think about that as a design parameter: two hundred feet. Then add in storm surge. The apocalypse isn’t over. It’s over the horizon.
There’s no hope?
Oh, there’s hope. Allison said fossil fuels were the cause of climate change, and she was right, but they’re also a solution to rising sea levels. We can use drilling technology to drive ourselves out of harm’s way. Big Oil’s off-shore investments can be exploited for living on-shore.
And if we don’t? What if architects stay asleep at the wheel?
Here’s my weather forecast for the future: coastal communities will get slammed with great storms on a regular basis. Some of those hurricanes and tropical depressions may wipe out 20% of an area’s population. It will take a million deaths to get radical changes in design theory, but architects will eventually receive the message. We are out of choices.
And I am out of ice tea. The back of my shirt is hermetically sealed to my scapula, but let’s not end on a sweaty macabre note. What would Allison Eve think of the bleak future you describe? As you said, she was an optimist.
Allison wouldn’t think about the future. She’d design it. I like to believe she’s out there now somewhere, making things right. (After David left the interview, I asked Richard for his thoughts on the discussion. He had this to say: – Ed)
Fog. Harvey died as a hissing mist. Dry air replaced wet. Humidity pushed aloft. Remnants of the storm swirled into fresh winds. What was left of the hurricane slipstreamed on the back of thermals—except for one breeze, which asked herself, Where to now? Distant lightning pointed north, so off she went.
The spirit skirted through fields and drifted over goldenrod and tartan farms. A week after leaving Texas, she flew to where the sun melts on the horizon. In clouds above a lake, the spirit wondered Where am I? which elicited a response.
“My dear, you are in the right place.”
To the disembodied voice, the spirit asked, And what place is that, sir?
“You are in Chicago. Or more precisely, you are over Chicago.”
The spirit wondered how it was that she could talk to another mind. She felt no tongue, had no mouth nor head. Somehow, though, she could see, so she replied, No, sir, this is not Chicago.
“Indeed, it is.”
It cannot be. There is no Sears Tower or John Hancock building.
“Oh, they won’t be built for a hundred years.”
The spirit was confused. Who or what, exactly, are you, voice? Present yourself.
With that, the soul once known as Allison, Evt’a, and a thousand other monikers found herself inside an oak-paneled lobby. Standing in front of her was a gentleman, bearded and tall. With a simple smile and an outstretched hand, he said, “Louis Sullivan, Madame, at your service.”
“I’m pleased to meet you, sir,” said the young woman. “My name is Evelyn, and I should like to apply for a position in your architectural firm.”
This is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Part 1 of the series is here.
Allison Rising is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Sojourn: A Novel Theory of Architecture. Featured image and YouTube video created by the author.