Standing up to the surge

Borrowing an idea from waterfront homeowners, Cambridge architects create a breakaway first floor to protect a college building

By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / December 13, 2010

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PROVIDENCE — In the sunshine, Johnson & Wales University’s new Cuisinart Center for Culinary Excellence looks sleek and sharp; it’s a light-filled space on the Narragansett Bay campus.

In a hurricane, a piece of the building may wash away — by design. Glass panels and a brick facade placed on the ground floor by the Cambridge architects Tsoi/Kobus & Associates would give way if floodwaters slam into the building.

The breakaway walls would allow water to flow freely past columns holding up the rest of the 82,000-square-foot building, ensuring it isn’t damaged by the ocean’s force. Nearby buildings would also be protected, because destructive floodwaters would not be redirected by any fixed walls.

Such designs have long been common for homes at the beach, where storm surges are so frequent that ground floors typically consist of little more than storage space or a garage. Now, architects are beginning to adopt them for far larger commercial and industrial buildings along the coast as climate change causes sea levels to rise.

“We were able to take advantage of creative construction,’’ said Chris Placco, vice president of facilities for Johnson & Wales. “And we basically built the building up on stilts.’’

The building, which contains 30 educational labs and classrooms, was designed to be a place where the environment and education would intersect. It includes light-filled rooms, energy-efficiency features, and a system to capture rainwater from the roof and use it to irrigate a native-grass garden. The university is seeking LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, certification.

Because the Harborside Campus — a former World War II shipyard and brownfields site — is on flat, low land adjacent to Narragansett Bay, the architects needed to come up with a plan that would meet federal and state flood-plain regulations; they did not specifically have climate change in mind.

Parking could have worked under the building, but there was plenty of land nearby for cars, and the configuration of the structure would have made it difficult to drive around underneath it.

So architect Nick Koulbanis and colleague Blake Jackson, the architectural firm’s sustainability coordinator, designed the bottom level to be a lobby and a loading dock. The sparse lobby is surrounded by glass panels attached with shear clips, similar to screw fasteners, that will hold if someone leans up against the panels, but would break away when hit with fast-flowing waters. Forty-foot brick panels surrounding part of the loading area would also break away. The panels would be lost, but the building’s integrity would be maintained.

One entrance is above the flood plain, as required by regulations, to ensure people can get in and out even if there is flooding.

Projections of global sea-level rise in the next 90 years range from 2.5 to 6 feet, said Ellen Douglas, assistant professor of hydrology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. The amount would depend on how much the oceans warm, which causes the water to expand, the extent of melting of ice sheets and glaciers, and local ocean circulation patterns.

In Boston, “we’re already beginning to see flooding at Long and Central Wharf during the highest of high tides,’’ Douglas said.

Boston is investing heavily in ways to adapt to and prepare for rising seas, including requiring large projects to consider climate change in their construction planning, said James Hunt, the city’s chief of environmental and energy services.

The Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital building under construction in Charlestown was designed to withstand rising seas, he said. Mechanical systems normally in the basement will be on the roof, and no critical-care services will be placed on the first floor.

Climate change “doesn’t mean not developing,’’ Hunt said, “but developing in a smarter way that protects the public and allows us to be more resilient as a community.’’

At Johnson & Wales, few expect the new building to face hurricane-force winds soon. But if it does, the building would remain standing, even if the glass and bricks below are washed away.

“The building will remain safe and usable,’’ Placco said.

Beth Daley can be reached at