Designing for disaster

Motivated by the devastation caused in Fiji by Cyclone Winston in 2016, Beca held its inaugural design competition for graduate designers. Our design - Wharftimus Prime, a modular, inflatable, floating wharf - received first place and also won the People’s Choice Award.

In 2015, over 16,000 fatalities were caused by 160 disasters in the Asia-Pacific region alone. Earthquakes, tsunami, storm surges and tropical cyclones can quickly devastate entire communities, and there’s little chance to predict when and where the next disaster will strike. When it does hit, whole villages can be destroyed in seconds, and communities can find themselves cut off from the world without access to basic life support. These people will need food, water, shelter and first aid, and they’ll need these things fast.

24 teams from New Zealand, Australia, Singapore and Thailand entered their ideas on how they would design for disaster.

My team, the Wharverines - four new graduates from a range of disciplines including transport, structures and stormwater - were inspired to enter and excited to see what innovation we could develop for a disaster-stricken community.

Wharves and other port structures are a vital distribution link for emergency supplies in time of disaster, yet they are often damaged in disasters. Therefore, we decided to design a wharf that could be quickly deployed in place of a broken structure to offload supplies. We set out a few key constraints to guide us, then started brainstorming and developing a solution that best met the principles that underpinned our design:

  • Community - as nurturing a sense of community can be as important as infrastructure, shelter and other basic needs in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Helping local people to help themselves and contribute to their own recovery, rather than treating them as victims, can go a long way in terms of community wellbeing and future resilience to disaster.
  • Resilience - because a community’s culture, livelihood and way of life is bound to change as it recovers from disaster, so it’s essential that a design is adaptable to diverse environments and conditions, and resilient to challenge and change. Sustainability also comes into play here as using locally available resources wherever possible, and limiting reliance on external assistance, can reduce impacts of the isolation that often occurs after disaster.

We worked our way through a complex design process asking questions far outside the scope of our normal daily activities; taking time to work out the steps of the design process and acknowledging that the whole process would involve numerous iterations.

Our final design, unveiled in all its glory at Beca’s Technical and Delivery Conference, won the inaugural competition - Wharftimus Prime, a modular, inflatable, floating wharf to unload supplies for emergency disaster relief.

Wharftimus Prime is made from two arms of inflatable modules and connected with a pivoting joint, the wharf can rotate into different configurations to suit the terrain and harbour environment as required, and can be pulled into shore to stay safe from rough seas when not in use. The full wharf setup can be delivered to site in a single shipping container and be fully assembled within days by unskilled labourers with limited resources - a huge benefit to those in disaster stricken areas.

Click through a slideshow below to see the details of our design and how it works.

Where to from here?

It would be great to look at what other solutions might assist disaster stricken communities. The disaster risk communities face is a combined result of the chance of exposure to a natural hazard, and the vulnerability of the community to such a hazard. The flipside to this vulnerability is the community’s capacities, which is what needs to be built up so they can be drawn on in a disaster.

So what can we do to reduce this vulnerability and build capacity for communities to mitigate and recover from effects of disaster and rely less on external, top-down technical solutions and provision of aid?

The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 considers several elements of reducing disaster risk; limiting exposure to hazards through disaster management and mitigation, decreasing vulnerability of people and their property, increasing understanding of and preparedness for disasters, and also practicing sustainable development and resource management. The two principles we considered in the design competition, resilience and community, make an excellent starting point for reducing disaster risk. Regardless of the country or community being considered, we need to make sure development policies are sustainable and incorporate resilience to disaster, and we need to make sure there is community engagement and participation in putting these policies into action.

In the context of our design competition scenario, instead of offering a quick technical fix post-disaster such as our wharf, perhaps resources could be better spent developing aspects of community and resilience prior to a disaster occurring - improving self-sufficiency and utilisation of local resources, diversifying people’s livelihoods, increasing resilience of infrastructure and utilities, building community networks, and increasing awareness of hazards and preparedness for their occurrence. What do you think?

Editor's note: Find out more about Beca's Design Competition here.

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