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How architects and designers are rebuilding Puerto Rico

From rethinking resiliency to strengthening infrastructure and building codes, there’s considerable work to be done

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Maria Gabriela Flores, an architect based in San Juan, was home when Hurricane Maria pummeled Puerto Rico with 155-mile-per-hour winds and, in some areas, 20 inches of torrential rain. She was fortunate. Her home, an older structure in the Miramar area, was built from reinforced concrete and survived with no major damage. But just three miles away in Caño Martin Pena—a dense, low-lying area adjacent to the Caño Martin Pena canal and filled with informal construction—the effects were far worse. Winds ripped roofing—often nothing more than galvanized metal sheets—off 1,200 houses.

“We had just had another hurricane a few days before, Irma, and we thought, ‘Oh it’s just hurricane season,’” Flores tells Curbed. “No one imagined the intensity or the gravity of the situation that was coming our way.”

Soon after the storm passed, Flores received an urgent call from a local architecture guild asking volunteers to help triage damage and put tarps over the roofless homes, an essential first step before permanent reconstruction. Then in January, Flores began working with Project Enlace—a local advocacy group for people living in Caño Martin Pena—to install stronger roofs.

Contractors apply a FEMA tarp to a home damaged by Hurricane Maria and without electricity on December 20, 2017 in Morovis, Puerto Rico.
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Since September of last year, architects and designers like Flores have been reconstructing and rethinking Puerto Rico’s built environment. These efforts include long-range resiliency planning, implementing hardier and faster construction techniques, installing renewable energy systems throughout the island, creating new housing types, launching new businesses, and working more closely with policy makers.

“As an architect it’s an exciting time to be here, but this can’t be taken lightly,” Flores says. “What we do now is going to affect generations to come. We have to take advantage of this moment and consider more environmentally-friendly perspectives on building. It’s full of possibilities, but there’s also a considerable amount of work to be done.”

Project Enlace identified 682 damaged roofs in need of construction. So far, they’ve only been able to build 76. Today, a full calendar year after Maria struck, blue tarps are all that separates many of Caño Martin Pena’s residents from the elements. And hurricane season is once again here.

A perfect storm for disastrous effects

Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico. The island sustained catastrophic damage to its electrical grid, communications network, drinking water system, housing stock, roads, schools, and more. The official death toll is now 2,975 people. Over 135,000 people have fled the island for the mainland, but it’s still too early to measure the complete population displacement from the storm. At least 160,000 homes were destroyed. The power grid was already fragile after years of delayed maintenance and mismanagement and it took 11 months for the island’s power to be restored after Maria. An estimated 5,000 to 8,000 small businesses have permanently closed.

Puerto Rico’s officials say they need $139 billion to fully recover; the federal government has only provided about half of that sum.

The scale of destruction and sluggish relief efforts in Puerto Rico are the byproduct of decades of disinvestment, population decline, predatory and unethical lending practices from Wall Street bankers, economic hardship, and a variety of tax laws and trade treaties imposed by the United States on its territory. Puerto Rico never recovered from the recession in the 2000s, and it faced a $74 billion debt crisis before Hurricane Maria.

A house destroyed by hurricane winds is seen in Barranquitas, southwest of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on October 20, 2017 a month after the passage of Hurricane Maria.
AFP/Getty Images
A house destroyed by hurricane winds is seen in Corozal, west of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on October 20, 2017 a month after the passage of Hurricane Maria.
AFP/Getty Images

“So many of the issues that have come to bear fruit because of Maria were implicit in how the island is structured economically, politically, and socially,” says Jonathan Marvel, a Puerto Rico-born architect based in New York and San Juan who has been active in post-Hurricane relief efforts, including the launch of a solar company. “Puerto Rico is completely unable to sustain itself energy wise and economically. We never really came back from the 2008 global meltdown. We’ve had 10 years of no construction so we have no labor, no materials, no local steel. Everything is imported.”

In May 2017, the island filed for bankruptcy and included an additional $49 billion in unfunded pension obligations for a total deficit of $123 billion. (In comparison, Detroit’s 2014 bankruptcy, the largest municipal filing at the time, was $18 billion.) The bankruptcy filing stated that Puerto Rico is “unable to provide its citizens effective services.” Between requests for aid and investment, Puerto Rico is also amplifying its call for statehood. But the island’s residents, designers, architects, and community organizers aren’t waiting for changes in top-down governance to rebuild.

Rethinking roofs

Nearly half of Puerto Rico’s population of 3.3 million lives in poverty. Over 1 million people live in informal housing, which the storm hit particularly hard. While Puerto Rico has building codes in place that help structures withstand hurricanes and seismic activity—even older buildings built to past codes survived with minimal damage—informal housing isn’t constructed to this criteria. Hurricane Maria’s high winds peeled roofs off like they were sticky notes, leaving the homes below them open to the elements.

After natural disasters, Puerto Ricans living in informal housing often rebuild using whatever materials they can find. But after Hurricane Maria, Project Enlace aimed to break the cycle by prioritizing better roof construction. Working with volunteer architects and architecture students from the Universidad del Turabo, they assessed damaged roofs and began with the homes of the most vulnerable residents: people who were sick, elderly, or had small children. Using basic FEMA guidelines of wood-truss and metal-frame roof systems, the architects drew plans for each of the houses and hired local contractors to build them.

Project Enlace is still constructing roofs and has experienced delays related to lack of materials, lack of skilled labor, and lack of funding. Project Enlace didn’t wait for FEMA funding to arrive and tapped private donations for its relief work. But the project has had to prioritize rebuilding the most damaged roofs, leaving others unfixed due to lack of time and budget. To help overcome these problems, the organization is now training community members on how to build stronger, more resilient roofs and has opened its own materials warehouse.

Housing has been the focus of most roof reconstruction, but commercial buildings also experienced storm damage. A challenge for warehouses and large commercial buildings was weatherproofing. While the roof structure survived, cladding didn’t, and water seeped into the buildings, destroying goods and allowing mold and fungus to flourish.

A home covered in blue tarp after Hurricane Maria, before it was fixed with a permanent roof.
Courtesy of Project Enlace
The roof of a home covered in blue tarp before it was replaced by Project Enlace.
Courtesy of Project Enlace
Home with a new roof completed by Project Enlace.
Courtesy of Project Enlace

“You can imagine the trickle down effect this has,” says architect Miguel Del Rio, who has been working on new roof designs for the commercial sector in Puerto Rico. “We concentrate on housing, but you also have to figure that after a hurricane or disaster, you need to bring food, water, and supplies. If these [warehouse and distribution] buildings aren’t good, you create a domino effect.”

Del Rio is focused on redesigning roofs for one of his commercial clients using a prefabricated structural insulated panel system, which should be more robust and more hurricane resistant and requires fewer people to assemble—a necessity given Puerto Rico’s shortage of skilled construction workers.

Reroofing Puerto Rico isn’t just about complying with building codes; it’s also about rethinking what these roofs are capable of. Enter Resilient Power Puerto Rico (RPPR), a distributed solar company that is outfitting homes and community centers with solar panels and developing solar microgrids. The company is on track to become a 501(c)3 nonprofit later this year.

To founders Jonathan Marvel, Cristina Roig-Morris, and Walter Meyer, one of the most urgent challenges facing Puerto Rico is self-sufficiency. In the case of electricity, the island’s grid will take billions of dollars and many years to modernize—time residents don’t have. Additionally, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) is a monopoly that has price gouged customers for years. Instead of coping with the outages and intermittent service of the existing grid, RPPR’s cofounders thought, communities should have sustainable power sources of their own.

Three weeks after Maria hit Puerto Rico, RPPR raised funds and donations, and began installing small five-kilowatt solar arrays—enough to power a full kitchen, lights, and ceiling fans—in community centers, which acted as relief hubs. To date, RPPR has installed solar arrays and battery systems at 28 community centers across the island—which include libraries, schools, churches, and even barber shops—and they have about 30 more in the pipeline.

Hijos de Don Bosco, with solar panels installed by RPPR.
Diana Serrano
Comite Social y Cultural Daguao, with solar panels installed by RPPR.
Courtesy of Resilient Power Puerto Rico

Each one of these centers can reach hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of residents. The cost to install a five-kilowatt array, with two batteries to store power, a gateway to access electricity, and a distribution panel, is about $25,000. RPPR estimates that each one will generate surplus power that’s worth about $2,500 annually and the systems can pay themselves off in about five years.

RPPR has steadily increased the size of its solar systems and wants to create more decentralized systems that can generate, store, and transmit power. However, a lack of batteries to store the solar power has hindered growth. Tesla originally supplied batteries to RPPR, and about 10 community centers have back-up from PowerWall units. However, because of production hiccups, RPPR hasn’t received as many batteries as it was promised and is now looking to other suppliers.

“If Puerto Rico needs one thing, it’s batteries to backup solar power systems,” Marvel says.

It’s not just self-reliant energy systems that interest Marvel and his team. They’re collaborating with the Acacia Network, a developer based in the Bronx, to prototype a 41-unit multi-family community in Villalba, a municipality in south-central Puerto Rico that is prioritizing sustainability in its hurricane reconstruction efforts.

The community, to be built using a panelized prefab system, will have its own solar micro grid and rainwater harvesting/purification system so it can survive up to two weeks without any public infrastructure. Each unit is expected to cost $120,000 and could be constructed on a variety of terrains and in rural and urban contexts.

“What’s most urgent is to be able to produce modular units to replace non-code-compliant housing in risky areas,” says José Juan Terrasa-Soler, a director at Marvel Architects.

Jumpstarting new housing

Architects in Puerto Rico have long emphasized housing—emergency, temporary, and permanent—as a lack of up-to-code homes, declining property values, and high property vacancy rates have created a housing crisis. But Hurricane Maria gave these efforts new urgency.

Architects and housing experts have approached the housing challenge from multiple fronts.

“There’s no one ‘magic bullet’ approach to rehousing people,” said economist and planner Deepak Lamba-Nieves at a recent Architecture League lecture on rebuilding Puerto Rico. “There are a number of structural and institutional challenges that need to be solved first.”

Researchers at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College suggest relocating families displaced from Maria into vacant units and using HUD Community Development Block Grants and low-income tax credits to pay for the rehabilitation and conversion of these vacant homes—a challenging endeavor given the sensitivity surrounding forced displacement and the sometimes-complex legal reasons why buildings are vacant.

Students at the Universidad del Turabo designed and built a prefab prototype for disaster relief housing that would be a local alternative to FEMA’s trailers, which have been widely criticized for their poor construction and inability to house people for medium-length periods. This structure, which would cost about $20,000 to build, has higher-quality construction and a longer lifespan.

”In the United States, FEMA gives some ‘trailers’ as temporary housing to the victims of a disaster, but in Puerto Rico they are not offered because of the costs that would be required to bring them here. Those ‘trailers’ have a cost of about $19,000 and the prototype of transitional housing that our students are working on is comparable,” the dean of the International School of Design and Architecture, Aurorisa Mateo, told El Nuevo Dia, a local news outlet.

Frustrations with FEMA also inspired Carla Gautier and Maria Velasco, cofounders of HiveCube, a startup that designs, manufactures, and sells prefab container homes. After Hurricane Maria, Gautier helped with recovery and relief efforts and saw firsthand how difficult it was for victims to receive aid from FEMA. Because their homes were built informally, many people had no official title or deed to their property. Many didn’t even have an address, which is a requirement to receive FEMA funds. Those who were able to provide documentation received small sums.

“A person that has lost their entire home, their clothes, all their belongings would get a check for $5,000,” Gautier says. “And you see this clause that FEMA expects you to build something resilient because they don’t give you money twice.”

A prefab container home by HiveCube.
Courtesy of HiveCube
The interior of a container home by HiveCube.
Courtesy of HiveCube

HiveCube’s homes are in a standard-size shipping container and feature two bedrooms, a full kitchen, bathroom, and living space. Buyers can also add custom space-saving furniture, solar power, and water purification as extras. The starting price is about $40,000, which is competitive for a single family home. (An average single-family house on the island is about $100,000.) The containers are made from steel and have hurricane-resistant windows.

“I always make the comparison to Wall-E—these things are going to be here well after we are,” Gautier says.

What’s most crucial to the prefabs, in addition to a fairly low price point for a single-family home, is that they’re built to code and sold as fully permitted structures, which Gautier hopes will help remedy some of the problems of informal construction. And since they’re government-approved, banks will mortgage them. Before the hurricane struck, Puerto Rico only employed five building code inspectors and essentially looked the other way when it came to informal housing.

“The most important part is making sure people build to code,” Gautier says. “One of the things that makes it so hard is the permitting process. The government admits it takes about four years for the average person to get the permits they need. They usually bypass this, construct their homes, and say sorry and then get the permits. After Maria, I saw so many retaining walls built with concrete blocks that didn’t even have rebar in it—it’s just like building with LEGOs!”

Prefabricated housing is also on Miguel Del Rio’s mind. He’s working with a building products company called Gulf Concrete Technology to develop designs for one-, two-, and three-bedroom homes built from a panelized system to specifications for hurricane and earthquake resistance. He eventually wants FEMA and Puerto Rico’s department of housing to sign off on the designs so that when residents receive their disaster funding, they have these designs as options.

Reconsidering Puerto Rico’s built environment

The consensus among architects I spoke to was that Puerto Rico can’t continue building the way it has in the past. But that requires carving a more resilient, sustainable path forward.

“A lot of people want changes, but they don’t want to change—that’s part of the situation,” says Luis Galarza, president of the Puerto Rican chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

ReImagina Puerto Rico—an independent commission supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Open Society Foundations—released reports this summer about how the island can think long-term about housing; economic development; energy; health, education, and social services; natural resources; and more through the lens of resiliency. It also recommended 17 priority projects, including establishing community land trusts, improving health care infrastructure, and introducing alternative energy.

But in the immediate future, one of the biggest hurdles will be breaking the habits of building in high-hazard areas and not building to code.

The interior of a house is damaged after Hurricane Maria at Barrio Melendez in San Juan, Puerto Rico on September 22, 2017.
Getty Images

“I heard on one occasion that there’s no such thing as natural disasters; they’re all man-made because we build where we shouldn’t—like in flood plains—and defy Mother Nature,” says Miguel Del Rio. “As architects and designers and planners we need to identify which areas we shouldn’t continue to build upon and find a higher plain or higher elevations or more stable grounds so we can minimize the damage. The events are going to continue to happen.”

Puerto Rico’s government is taking this risk somewhat seriously. It’s now saying residents won’t receive federal money unless they relocate away from flood-prone areas. However, some residents affected by this new policy are frustrated since they don’t want to leave their communities and weren’t consulted about the rules.

Maria Flores thinks that while architects now have a greater responsibility to employ resilient building strategies—like orienting buildings to take advantage of natural ventilation, installing low-energy systems, and the adaptive reuse of existing buildings—architects also have to adopt a grander calling than designing buildings.

“We need to focus... more on reading the city and thinking of systems,” she says. “Architects should take a seat at the decision-making table. There aren’t enough architects involved in communities, in organizations, in things that aren’t architecture with a capital A. If we focus more on that than building pretty buildings, then we’re doing service to the long-term planning.”

Mother Isamar holds her baby Saniel, 9 months, at their makeshift home, under reconstruction, after being mostly destroyed by Hurricane Maria, on December 23, 2017 in San Isidro, Puerto Rico.
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Galarza agrees. He’s trying to work more closely with local government as an advocate for safer construction and to increase public awareness about how to build more carefully.

“We have to educate the government more about enforcing codes and not allowing people to build whatever is ‘reasonable,’” he says. “The issue is enforcement. As long as the government does not do its job to be a little bit more adamant about complying, we’re not going anywhere.”

One year after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico is still figuring out what the path forward will be. It’s still in a fragile state and will likely be for a long time. A slow drip of relief money is only just beginning.

“Ten years after Katrina, they’re still working on things,” Galarza says. “There’s a long way to go for us. What we have to do now is be sure that the money is put where it’s needed and the building efforts are focused.”

But Jonathan Marvel remains skeptical about Puerto Rico’s reconstruction and sees a limit to how much architects are able to help unless there is significant investment in new construction, which is what typically stimulates the economy in the United States. In his opinion, what’s really needed is a drastic overhaul of Puerto Rico’s economy. “What Puerto Rico needs is private sector jobs,” he tells Curbed. “Relying on government aid is perpetuating the colonial Band-Aid.”

Editor: Sara Polsky


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