The response of the architectural and building communities to address climate change by lowering carbon demand has deeply impressed me. Green building has become the standard for the custom builders who I work with in the Wasatch Back. Carbon footprints are being reduced, and I read about new buildings that will even be carbon neutral. Exciting innovations are being explored to lower the carbon footprint even more through building materials like using hydrogen energy to make concrete and to find more uses for sustainable specialized wood products.  

However, with the storms in the West, I would like to steer the discussion to planning the built environment to address the large variations in normal weather we are seeing, like the shift from drought to flooding in the West. 

Photo by Deb Lapp

Some dear friends in the agricultural Central Valley of California posted the above photo of a sycamore tree branch in rushing water. If you look carefully, there are party lights in the branches, indicating the rushing water has taken over their yard. 

The opening photo captures the glass rear of the home with the patio and pool facing out to the Kings River, and the photo above looks to the entry and car park. Both were taken in May during a more normal water year. The photo below captures a similar view of the home, but it was taken last week following a seven-inch deluge in one day from an atmospheric river, one of twelve to hit the area. A series of very large wet storms preceded last week’s atmospheric river, as well. Usually tranquil and small, Mill Creek collected foothill rain to ravage (20,000 cubic feet per second) the property as the creek entered the river by the home. This is especially astounding since the average annual rainfall for the arid area is only 15 inches per year. 

Photo by Deb Lapp

Local agencies responded with heavy equipment to excavate a moat around the home, and the home is safe as I write this. 

Astonishing under any circumstances, it is especially so because the siting and construction of this home was very well considered both by the clients and the design and build team. The clients are academics and creative professionals (one music, the other writing and literature). They have experienced in living by this river and are very knowledgeable and committed to organic architecture, a school of architecture associated with Frank Lloyd Wright and his students and fellow practitioners, where design is deeply tied to the site and the characteristics of the land. 

Together with their architect, Arthur Dyson, FAIA, they selected a building site outside the 100-year flood plain, and on the highest point available. The river flows from Kings Canyon National Park and a few miles upstream from the home, Pine Flat dam stabilizes flows. The modest one-bedroom home is a single level, but the large open living space soars up with a high ceiling designed for accommodating audiences and acoustics for musical performances. Dyson’s roof design slopes down to connect it to the ground and minimizes the home’s height on the highest point on the parcel. The roof design also works with the solar orientation and eliminating glare, as well as directing rain run-off away, while still providing for views to the river coursing below. The home and its grounds frequently host gatherings, and it is a favorite fund-raising spot for Friends of the Kings River.

My purpose first is to show you this lovely and unique home situated along the river and among vineyards, orchards, and gardens for a self-sustaining lifestyle. Second, if extreme weather can put this well-considered home in jeopardy, what does the future hold for the built environment as we see large deviations for normal predictable conditions?

Photo by Deb Lapp

These weather changes, as experienced in Central California, raise questions of whether we should continue to build neighborhoods based on assumptions that the future will echo the past or whether there should be more anticipation that there will be more frequent and more damaging weather extremes. I have great confidence that the same effort and wise consideration professionals have directed toward reducing the carbon footprint of the built environment will be directed toward anticipating climate extremes to keep our homes and neighborhoods safe.

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