Exploring Waterfront Design and Resilience with Dena Prastos

by AEI Consultants

An In-Depth Interview with Dena Prastos

In a world increasingly affected by climate hazards, the design and resilience of waterfront properties has never been more critical. AEI was privileged to have an insightful conversation with Dena Prastos, a renowned Waterfront Architect who stands at the forefront of innovative architectural solutions.

In our conversation with Dena Prastos, we discussed the importance of designing waterfront properties that can withstand the increasing frequency and intensity of climate hazards. As a leading Waterfront Architect, and Founder and CEO of Indigo River, Dena emphasized the need for innovative solutions that balance technical precision with environmental impact and public welfare.

Some of the key takeaways from our conversation with Dena include:

  • Understanding the unique challenges posed by waterfront properties.
  • Incorporating resilient design features that can withstand extreme weather events and protect the property and its inhabitants.
  • Balancing the need for protection with the desire for aesthetic appeal, ensuring that the property remains an attractive and functional space.
  • Engaging with the community and stakeholders to ensure that the design meets their needs and concerns.

At AEI, we are committed to working with experienced professionals like Dena to ensure that our clients’ properties are designed with resilience and sustainability in mind. Keep reading for a behind-the-scenes look at an incredible project we undertook together with Indigo River and hazard/climate tech company RiskFootprint™ – offering a real-world illustration of our practical approach to resilient design.

AEI: It’s a pleasure to have you with us today. Could we start with an elaboration on the unique role and responsibilities of a Waterfront Architect?

Dena-PrastosDena Prastos: Let me start by broadly reasserting what the role of an architect is in general. We are licensed professionals tasked with protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the public in the built environment. While the majority of architects working within this realm focus on buildings and various building typologies, my practice at Indigo River is quite distinct. We operate on the periphery of the traditional field of architecture, concentrating specifically on vulnerable coastal and waterfront areas.

In examining cities, particularly coastal and waterfront cities, my focus is on how they’ve evolved and adapted over time. These cities often have complex histories with industrial maritime pasts, bustling commerce, and recreational areas, many of which are integral parts of the built environment.

Typically, waterfront development involves a lot of engineers who excel in their roles, approaching challenges with a technical and problem-solving lens. However, their focus often misses the softer side of architecture, which is where my role becomes crucial. I emphasize the welfare of the public in the built environment, especially as it relates to waterfront areas.

The projects I work on vary greatly, encompassing port facilities, marina facilities, ferry landings, and waterfront public access parks. While these projects align with the work of marine and coastal engineers, my approach incorporates a softer lens. It’s not just about technical solutions; it’s about considering the end-user experience and how we can protect and enhance public welfare, going beyond the basic health and safety mandates of building codes, which are often outdated.

AEI: Could you provide an overview of the key benefits associated with resilient waterfront architecture?

Dena-PrastosDena Prastos: Absolutely. In discussing the waterfront, it’s essential to acknowledge that it is one of our most vulnerable typologies. This is due to the various natural forces at play, different from what we experience inland. On the waterfront, we’re constantly dealing with wind, waves, wakes, storms, and flooding. These forces are recurrent and significantly impact the structures and environments there.

When talking about resilience in our line of work, I believe it’s important to distinguish it from sustainability, as these terms, though related, are not interchangeable. In our profession, there’s a tendency to blur the two, but they have distinct meanings. Sustainability broadly refers to mankind’s impact on the environment, questioning whether our actions are depleting the Earth’s natural resources. Resiliency, on the other hand, is about the natural environment’s impact on our buildings and infrastructure. It’s about how our creations withstand and respond to events like storms, hurricanes, and other natural phenomena.

This differentiation is crucial on the waterfront because of its inherent vulnerability. For instance, you can specify a particular concrete for a seawall that has a low carbon footprint, which is sustainable. However, if this seawall isn’t designed correctly in terms of elevation, thickness, or shape, it may not withstand a storm. In that case, its sustainability is compromised because if it fails, you will likely have to rebuild it, using more materials and incurring additional costs thereby increasing the carbon footprint of the structure, not to mention the potential risk to human lives.

Therefore, our focus often shifts more toward the resiliency aspects of projects, considering how our built environment can withstand and adapt to nature’s forces over time. It’s about creating structures that not only meet sustainable criteria but are also resilient enough to endure the unique challenges posed by the waterfront environment.

AEI: What specific design features do you incorporate to protect waterfront properties from extreme weather events like hurricanes or floods?

Dena-PrastosDena Prastos: The design features we incorporate largely depend on the specific program and the structure in question. Let me give you a couple of examples to illustrate this.

Take marinas, for instance. A key design criterion for a marina is maintaining a calm wave environment. It’s crucial not to expose vessels, especially expensive yachts, to harsh wave conditions. To achieve this, we start by deploying monitors to gauge the prevailing conditions, be it wave, wake, or wind-driven waves. This helps us understand the environmental factors we need to address. In marinas, we might design a wave screen or a floating wave attenuator to mitigate wave action and create a calmer wave environment for the vessels.

Moving on to resilient features in a broader urban context, let’s consider our public transit systems. A resilient transit system is vital for national and city security, as evidenced by events like Hurricane Sandy in New York or the 9/11 aftermath when rapid evacuation was necessary. These scenarios highlighted the need for diverse and resilient transportation options, particularly in emergencies. An example of this resilience in action is the design of floating ferry landings. These structures are inherently resilient as they adapt to changing water levels – they float with rising waters and recede with them. This adaptability is crucial, especially in areas prone to flooding. By diversifying our public transit options and ensuring that some are resilient to natural hazards, we strengthen the overall fabric of our cities and enhance their capacity to respond to emergencies.

AEI: In your view, what are the most critical aspects when designing resilient waterfront buildings?

Dena-PrastosDena Prastos: When designing resilient waterfront buildings, the critical aspects extend beyond just meeting the client’s demands, needs, and wishes. It’s about understanding and connecting with a broader range of stakeholders, including the community, operations teams, and end users, who often have varying perspectives, desires, and requirements.

One of the key challenges is recognizing that infrastructure projects typically have a long timeline and lifespan. From the funding and feasibility stages to the design phase, to construction, and final occupancy, these projects can span generations. Therefore, it’s essential to anticipate and future-proof our designs. This means understanding how future generations might use these structures and what their needs will be, as well as incorporating scientific data on climate projections, which are often not reflected in current codes, which are most often backwards looking, reactive in their nature.

This challenge requires us to marry two critical aspects: meeting the minimum requirements set by codes and articulating to all stakeholders the real threats and vulnerabilities, which can change over time. It’s about ensuring that we’re not just designing for the present, but also for the right time period and for the right risks. This involves a deep understanding of the environmental changes projected for the future and how they might impact the waterfront infrastructure we are developing today.

AEI: While Climate Models continue evolving, we have seen that climate projections vary among providers or even change with new updates. Some examples are projects located in the financial district in NY or the Seaport District in Boston, where design had to be updated. Do you consider these possible changes in climate data for your designs?

Dena-PrastosDena Prastos: Yes, that’s absolutely the case. We’re currently working on a project where we faced a similar situation. The key is to be aware of the available data sources and how frequently they are updated. We do our best to reference the latest data and inform our clients if and as new updates arise. Building and infrastructure owners need to first understand the natural hazards and climate impacts that are present at the site. Then, they need to understand the “so what” or how those risks impact the assets today and into the future. Finally, ownership needs to know “what’s next” or what can reasonably be done to mitigate the risks. In this process, we use hazard and climate impact assessments like the RiskFootprint™ and RiskFootprint’s B-Resilient™ services to better understand vulnerabilities and values-at-risk to the projects on which we are working. 

The architecture profession needs to be aware of how rapidly these factors are changing and maintain ongoing conversations with clients about them. Sometimes, this means making adjustments even at the construction documentation stage, but it’s preferable to make modifications as opposed to building something that might fail prematurely.

We’re also involved in a significant initiative with the City of New York, supporting the drafting of the City’s first waterfront code. This is a new frontier because waterfront infrastructure has historically been governed by the Department of Small Business Services which references the NYC Building code, but that doesn’t always apply or make sense for waterfront structures. One of the critical debates in writing this waterfront code is how to address sea level rise projections. The challenge lies in selecting a reliable data source and managing the associated liabilities. It’s a complex task but crucial for ensuring the long-term viability and safety of waterfront infrastructure.

AEI: Could you discuss a successful waterfront project that you’re particularly proud of?

Dena-PrastosDena Prastos: Certainly. One project that stands out involves a national portfolio holder of hotels. Among these properties, there’s a historic hotel that has been around since the early 1900s. This beautiful facility, located in Florida, is notable not only for its heritage but also for how it withstood challenges like sea level rise and hurricanes for decades. Despite being prone to flooding, it has endured over the years.

Our approach to this project revolved around various flood mitigation philosophies. Historically, the building was designed with practical considerations for flooding – the understanding that when it floods, people would evacuate or move to higher ground, and once the water receded, the building would be restored, and operations would continue. Now, they’re undergoing a massive renovation aimed at further mitigating flood damage.

In collaboration with AEI and RiskFootprint™, we developed a multi-pronged approach to flood mitigation for this project. This includes deployable systems that require human intervention during national hurricane warnings. The hotel’s operations personnel undergo training to deploy a perimeter barrier system during such events. Additionally, we assessed localized conditions, like basement flooding, determining which areas can tolerate flooding and which cannot. Our solutions included both wet floodproofing and dry floodproofing, detailing accoutrements such as flood doors, check valves, and backflow preventers.

Each of these approaches is aimed at making the facility more resilient to flood inundation. The goal is to either prevent water from entering critical areas or to allow it in the parts of the structure that are designed to withstand and recover quickly from flooding, using materials that can be easily cleaned and put back into operation. This project is significant not just for its technical aspects, but also because it reflects the client’s commitment to protecting a historic asset and doing right by the built environment. The hotel won’t be occupied during flood conditions, but the measures we’ve put in place are about safeguarding the property for the long term.

AEI: What are some of the most significant challenges in building resilient waterfront properties?

Dena-PrastosDena Prastos: One of the primary challenges in building resilient waterfront properties is establishing ownership buy-in on design criteria. This is crucial because the risks and hazards involved are not uniform; they vary in terms of their level and impact. This is where we have found hazard and climate assessment technology like RiskFootprint™ especially useful to us, as it helps with ownership buy-in by quantifying both “what” the risks are and the “so what” or why resilience investments should be made. It’s also essential to understand the client’s goals for the project and how these align with the governing criteria for resilience. For example, let’s consider a project involving the construction of a dock. Whether it’s a homeowner wanting a residential backyard dock for their motorboat or a larger scale Municipal pier project, the key is to communicate and understand that there are multiple ways to approach this design and construction. It involves discussions around risk, decisions about elevation, which not only affect the project’s resilience but also its return on investment. Additionally, regional considerations, such as the practical lifespan and utility of the structure, play a significant role in the design process.

Another significant challenge lies in ensuring effective communication, especially in large-scale infrastructure projects. It’s common to find capital and operations teams working in silos, with separate budgets and schedules, leading to decisions that may not be aligned. Effective communication between these teams early on can lead to solutions that are feasible, reasonable, and viable, benefiting the project as a whole. For instance, we had a client with a private library, who wanted a perimeter barrier system for flood mitigation. In this case, it was important to discuss not just the technical aspects but also the practical implications, like whether there was sufficient labor for deployment during emergencies. Such discussions help clarify assumptions and ensure that the design aligns with the operational team’s capabilities, as well as the intended use and lifespan of the structure.

AEI: What are some of the latest technologies enhancing resilience and design in waterfront architecture?

Dena-PrastosDena Prastos: In the field of waterfront architecture, technological advancements primarily revolve around forecasting and understanding hazards and vulnerabilities, which are rapidly evolving. While not all architects may be leveraging these technologies, they are integral to waterfront architecture due to the constant interaction with nature’s forces.

One key technology we use is wave monitors. These are essential for understanding the wave climate at specific sites. This is because general reports from NOAA, USGS, or the Coast Guard provide a macro perspective and often lack the nuance required for individual site conditions. By deploying wave monitors, we can gather detailed data on local conditions, such as the impact of ferry boat wakes, which might not be covered in the more generic national reports.

Our team is multidisciplinary, encompassing various specialties within architecture, engineering, and planning. We have traditional building architects, landscape architects, naval architects specializing in floating structures, urban planners, and climate adaptation planners with a scientific approach. In the engineering field, we have experts in geotechnical, structural, marine, and coastal engineering. Additionally, we employ professional engineer divers for underwater inspections.

A notable technology in our toolkit is the use of underwater drones. These drones allow us to inspect structures in tight spaces underwater, which would otherwise be inaccessible or too risky for divers. This capability is particularly valuable in assessing the condition of underwater infrastructure and contributes significantly to our understanding and ability to enhance the resilience of waterfront properties. These technologies and our team’s multidisciplinary approach are crucial in advancing the design and resilience of waterfront developments.

AEI: What strategies are key in making waterfront infrastructure resilient to the long-term impacts of climate hazards?

Dena-PrastosDena Prastos: The foundation of building resilient waterfront infrastructure lies in a deep understanding and ongoing education about long-term climate impacts and hazards. This involves a dynamic process of staying informed and updating our approaches as new information becomes available. We ensure that this awareness is not confined to our team but extends to our clients through continuous discussions and feedback, emphasizing the ever-changing nature of environmental challenges.

A critical strategy in our approach is designing adaptable systems. For instance, when considering ferry landings, we might choose a floating design over a fixed one. The rationale behind this choice is adaptability to rising sea levels – as the water level changes, a floating structure can adjust accordingly, maintaining its functionality and safety.

Our planning process often adopts a phased approach, especially in complex projects. For example, in developing a master plan, we may initially design and construct a segment of the project to 100%. This phase serves as a testbed, allowing us to evaluate the effectiveness of our design in real-world conditions and learn from its performance. Based on these insights, we can adapt and modify subsequent phases of the project, ensuring that the entire infrastructure remains resilient over its intended lifespan, which could be 50 years or more.

A practical application of this strategy is evident in our project on  isolated Islands, keeping in mind that New York City is an archipelago of more than 40 islands (or former islands). These types of access projects require a deep consideration of various factors, including security and evacuation strategies. The unique challenge here is that often the only access to these island is by water, making their piers and ferry landings critical components not only for transportation but also for emergency evacuation. These structures must be designed to be the most resilient parts of the island, potentially serving as areas of refuge during catastrophic events. They need to be reliable and robust to accommodate large numbers of people in emergency situations.

In designing such infrastructure, it’s essential to consider both the regular operational scenarios and the less frequent but critical situations, such as major storms or other natural disasters. This dual-focus approach ensures that our designs are not only suitable for everyday use but are also capable of withstanding and functioning effectively during the 2% of the time when extreme conditions prevail.

The essence of our strategy is fostering adaptability in infrastructure design, acknowledging the evolving nature of climate and natural hazards. We recognize that climate conditions and environmental risks are not static but are worsening over time. Therefore, our designs must be flexible and robust, capable of adapting to future challenges and safeguarding the public and the environment.


Final Thoughts:

In an era where climate hazards are increasingly impacting properties, understanding and preparing for these challenges is essential. Conducting a property resilience assessment is a key step in recognizing potential vulnerabilities and developing strategies to minimize damage and costs from climate-related events. AEI offers thorough property resilience assessments, utilizing the latest hazard and climate risk assessment technologies, and customized to address the specific needs of each property. These assessments are designed to provide valuable insights and actionable recommendations, ensuring that property owners are well-equipped to enhance their property’s resilience against environmental threats. If you’re considering the resilience of your property against climate hazards, feel free to reach out to AEI for a comprehensive assessment that can guide your preparedness and mitigation plans.