How Natural Disasters Have Shaped the Way We Build (and Rebuild)

Guest blog by Casey Heigl

While the type and severity of natural disasters vary across the world, all regions and cultures have had to adapt to some kind of catastrophic event. The United States has tornados and hurricanes; parts of Asia and Oceania are prone to earthquakes, and much of Europe commonly experiences flooding. The architecture in these regions isn’t just a product of available materials and cultural values—it’s also each society’s first line of defense against the elements.

With globalization and the rise of the internet, it’s easier than ever for architects to learn from each other. New ideas draw from other cultures’ successes and use the latest technology to merge designs and make them accessible to the public.

Learning from History

Some areas of the world deal with extreme temperatures much more often than they deal with sudden disasters. Much of Africa deals with routine heat and sandstorms, and, while some countries experience flooding and earthquakes, the architecture has not had to adapt as much as in some other parts of the world.

For example, Japan has struggled with typhoons and earthquakes for centuries. The island nation also experiences high heat and humidity in the summer, and its mountainous regions can remain snowy for nearly half of the year. Despite regional differences, Japanese housing always prioritizes wind, earthquakes, and mold resistance. Traditionally, this meant housing designs that allow air to move through the entire home, with structures that allow beams to move in case of an earthquake.

Europe has less extreme weather than other parts of the world, but it has learned from major floods of the past. The Netherlands is now pioneering homes that “float”and can rise to cope with flooding. These structures may not be practical everywhere, but their value is well-understood in the Netherlands, where residents have dealt with frequent flooding for centuries. As Europe’s population density increases and more land is needed, houses like these could be the keys to reclaiming land on known floodplains.


Changes in Education and Culture

Some of the most useful innovations have come from scientists who have worked with local residents to improve existing building traditions after disasters. Mud houses, which are common around the world, can be made more earthquake-proofwhen supplemented with concrete and metal at strategic points. Since square structures are more earthquake-resistant than rectangular ones, saving lives is sometimes as simple as educating residents on how to build their houses safely and demonstrating best practices.

In Japan, it’s common for houses to be torn down every 20-30 years as building codes improve. Instead of seeing houses as something to be cherished forever, houses are seen as tools that should be replaced when they are wearing out. This is a dramatically different approach than the U.S., which often sees older homes renovated and patched up even when rebuilding may be a better option for long-term safety.

Increasing Regulation

In many wealthier nations, government building regulations have become stricter in an attempt to preserve safety. Outlawing weak, cheap materials and unsound building practices has likely saved countless lives. Building codes have existed since ancient times, but their specificity and effectiveness have increased as modern technology has improved engineering practices.

In some cases, changes in building codes may impact who has to evacuate during disasters. For example, a government agency may urge residents of buildings built before a certain year to evacuate, but encourage residents of newer buildings to shelter in place, thanks to the protections offered by updated building codes. This has the added benefit of minimizing evacuations, which reduces road accidents, delays, and other logistical problems.

Urban development experts have recently gone even further and begun calling for more restrictions on where and how much we build. Experts say that the unprecedented flooding in Houston during Hurricane Harvey was mostly caused by runaway development, which reduced the amount of land that floodwaters could drain into. Areas of Houston that were previously not considered floodplains suddenly flooded due to recent development in surrounding areas. Unfortunately, this damage to the ecosystem will be extremely difficult to undo, especially with the number of water-repelling parking lots and roads across the city.


Improving Materials and Shapes

Research into new materials has become a priority for cash-strapped governments and major corporations. While concrete and metal have their place in architecture, some new materials like foam and hot melt adhesivesare beginning to prove their worth. In the aftermath of a disaster, a community’s ability to rebuild is largely determined by how quickly safe housing can be procured, and the speed and flexibility of innovative materials are likely to be game-changers.

As technology improves, round and dome-shaped houses are being used for experimentation. Aeronautical engineering has long since proved that curved and sloping shapes are more aerodynamic than sharp and flat ones, but this knowledge has not been applied to housing until recently. Japan is experimenting with dome-shaped foam houses, and one U.S. construction company is seeing overwhelming success with its well-constructed round homes.

There’s still a long way to go before these new materials reach mainstream usage since consumers have been slow to embrace them. Even well-understood materials like precast concretearen’t yet a go-to option for many architects and building owners.

Obstacles to Change

Unfortunately, financial costs will always pose a barrier to shaping how we build. Even in the wake of major disasters, the price tag of updated building codes and voluntary improvements has made safer buildings an uphill battle. It’s not uncommon for a strong new building code to be proposed, then be weakened due to the financial difficulties it would pose for families, building owners, and architects alike.

Technological limits are also an obstacle. For example, measuring and assessing the damage done to a house during a hurricane is difficult to do in precise terms when the house has been reduced to rubble. Highly sensitive force-measuring equipment can be helpful in a controlled environment, but it’s not easily deployable in the field, making it less helpful for studying individual building collapses and other disasters.

While environmentally friendly practices are desirable and great for our planet, it can be hard to balance strength and recyclability. Improvements in wood lamination and particleboard creation have made wood a surprisingly effective building material for earthquake resistance, but it’s not a good material for very humid environments, including areas of the globe where hurricanes are common.

Finally, existing buildings are obstacles in and of themselves. Base isolation pads of rubber and lead are great for improving earthquake resilience, but they’re difficult to install in existing high-rise structures. Residents and owners of outdated buildings may naturally be reluctant to relocate while rebuilding occurs.

Fortunately, the conversation around architecture and natural disasters is beginning to change. Members of the public who have been affected by natural disasters are seeking solutions, and scientists and other innovators are rising to the challenge. Collaboration between architects around the world will only make buildings stronger, safer, and more affordable as we continue to adapt to our world.2


Casey Heigl is the Marketing Manager for, one of the companies that makes up Heigl Technologies. She has extensive knowledge of hot melt applications, vendors, industry trends and how they are used across various verticals. Casey enjoys sharing her unique perspective through her blog writing.