Design Negotiations with Mother Nature

Posted on April 23, 2012


An article in a trade magazine crossed my path on design for lightning protection for hospitals. Articles on topics like lightning fall into a category I refer to as ‘The Physics of Life’:  immutable natural laws with which every building professional since the beginning of time has wrestled, and those 5000 years from now will also contend with. When you have read one article on the subject, you may as well have read them all because the science and subject matter are for the most part known—yet ensuring, and in some cases, predicting outcomes with certainty is still impossible. 

Lightning, forces of nature (tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes), infestations, and to some extent soil conditions fall squarely into the ‘Physics of Life’ realm. Even with a topic expert on your design team, you cannot guarantee a functional ideal. Subjects like lightning protection remind us how ultimately powerless we are in an effort to control nature. Our built environment can handle and coexist with 97% of daily weather and natural phenomena, but that 3% is chaotic, awesome, and often catastrophic to behold.

Last month I attended a presentation on St. John’s Joplin, Missouri hospital and its effort to rebuild after a Category 5 tornado hit last year. The photos and statistics were things you cannot imagine because they totally defy expectation.

The best thing a design-builder can do for an owner is to overlay personal experience and recommendations with mandatory building code requirements and advise the most reasonable and responsible solution.  Then have contingencies in place. Then ask a lot of questions and run scenario analyses to educate the owner.

When working on the design and construction of the Miami Dolphins’ inflatable structure at their practice facility, the site received a direct hit of lightning a couple of months before opening. The “bubble” structure was not hit, but less than 75 yards away the adjacent practice field was. As designed, the bolt hit the lightning protection on the bleachers, then coursed throughout the immediate area ‘frying’ nearly everything electrical on our project—speakers, lights, HVAC, even backup generators. Our electrical engineer was in the unenviable position of explaining the result to the owner at our next progress meeting. He put a number on the estimated electrical energy the site received, a number I cannot remember because its magnitude was so extraordinary, and basically said humans can only do so much to prepare for a phenomenal event like lightning, but no system design could adequately handle the amplitude of a direct hit and the unpredictable behavior of such a charge.

Maybe more vexing was that no matter what was subsequently fixed, designed and implemented, nothing could guarantee avoidance of a similar fate because a future direct hit could deliver even more amps the next time. It just can’t be known. As a young architect, it gave me a helpful perspective:  design intelligently and safely, but the Law of Diminishing Returns is definitely in effect when dealing with nature.

Similarly owners, especially at hospitals, need to know what to expect when confronted with the eccentricities of nature. Identify operations and performance goals for what absolutely must continue, or begin, in light of such an unpredicted event. What is one person’s preservation position is another person’s redundancy overkill, and both might be washed out by Mother Nature.