December 15, 2022

How Preservationists Are Taking On Climate Change Along the Gulf Coast

The Gulf Coast of the United States is no stranger to tropical storms. But climate science indicates that the strength and intensity of hurricanes will increase in the coming years. That puts the region’s historic structures in a vulnerable spot, with forceful winds and heavy rains threatening to damage or destroy local communities’ built history and heritage.

Instead of waiting to react after another disaster strikes, a research group at the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Center for Cultural Sustainability has spent the past few years developing a toolkit to help congregations who worship in historic buildings make their structures more resilient ahead of time.

Led by program director William Dupont, who previously served as chief architect for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the UTSA team identified nine sites along Texas’ Gulf Coast to serve as case studies for their project. The goal, Dupont says, is to give these properties a chance to rebound and recover in the wake of natural disaster, which would then allow them to play a vital role in serving the larger community.

We spoke to Dupont about the project, which was done in concert with the nonprofit Partners for Sacred Places (PSP collaborates with the National Trust on the National Fund for Sacred Places), and what he thinks preservationists can do to combat climate change. A presentation on the toolkit was available on demand for attendees of the Trust’s PastForward conference in November 2022.

photo by: University of Texas, San Antonio

William Dupont is the director of UTSA Center for Cultural Sustainability and the lead for the center's heritage resilience project.

How and why did the UTSA-CCS toolkit for historic houses of worship come about?

A little over five years ago Texas was hit hard by Hurricane Harvey. There was a massive federal relief bill, and those funds went to help with the relief effort, clean up, and other projects. The Texas Historical Commission scored $12 million from the National Park Service, which was administering this disaster relief money in Texas, and set it aside for historic preservation projects.

I learned about that and thought, “Well, they really need to do a planning grant, because the question on everyone's lips is, ‘What are we gonna do next time?’”

So we set out to match historic preservation with resilience planning. I merged it together and called it heritage resilience, and we determined that we needed to develop tools. The team formed with engineers, architects, and construction science management specialists, and we put a package together.

What are some of the tools you developed?

We knew we wanted to have things that people could use to enhance resilience. And so that meant [risk assessment] tools, performance indicator tools, and what we ended up calling a resilience roadmap, which provides basic, common-sense information about how to enhance the resilience of particular building types.

photo by: University of Texas, San Antonio

Interior of Galveston's St. Mary's Cathedral, one of nine historic houses of worship evaluated by The University of Texas at San Antonio research team.

Why did you focus on historic houses of worship?

We ended up going for historic houses of worship because I felt that they are trusted in their communities. They have an existing public function. People have them as reference points in their minds even if they don't worship in that particular place. They tend to provide services to their communities, and they engage in disaster relief. So, they seemed like a logical player to focus on.

I called up an old friend in Philadelphia who runs the Partners for Sacred Places, Bob Jaeger. I talked to Bob about this idea, and he said, “Sounds great, we'd love to help.” We wrote Partners for Sacred Places into the grant, as well as a consulting professional team, so that we would have the credentials to speak to leaders of these historic houses of worship and have the expertise to make sure our tools were written in a non-technical language.

photo by: University of Texas, San Antonio

First Church of Christ, Scientist in Victoria, Texas.

photo by: University of Texas, San Antonio

B'nai Israel in Victoria, Texas.

So are these primarily for architecture or preservation professionals, or are they more widely accessible?

We wanted to make this accessible. The resilience roadmap from its inception was always intended to be a document that could be read at the eighth-grade reading level so that there would be few barriers to anybody making use of it. Some of the other tools do require a little bit more professional skill.

That's why we put scoring into it. That is supposed to appeal to people's human nature, that competitive drive to want to succeed at something and make it more interesting so they can see, aha, I did this, that was recommended and then I went through and I did my resilience performance indicator again and I got a better score this year.

Do you envision this project extending to other building types?

The initial goal is to have a network of these historic houses of worship, and the Partners for Sacred Places organization is keen on playing a leadership role in that. They'd like to see if they can get some funding and prove the efficacy of having this network so that they can expand it to other regions of the country where different types of threats cause different types of disasters.

My tendency is to try to speak to a particular audience and do that well. When you make things too general, sometimes it's harder to reach that audience. The same sort of summary vulnerability assessment, resilience performance indicators, and resilience roadmap could be written for different types of buildings. But it would require retooling for that different group because they're meant to speak to a specific audience in this case.

photo by: University of Texas, San Antonio

Midtown Houston's Trinity Episcopal.

photo by: University of Texas, San Antonio

Eaton Chapel in Galveston, Texas.

Are there any case studies that stand out to you and your team?

We purposefully selected a diverse group. They all stand out. We only had nine. They're in Houston, Victoria, and Galveston. And each one has a history and there are different types of architecture, different time periods of architecture, different building technologies, and different historical significance. It's impossible to say that one is more interesting or memorable.

What are the biggest challenges facing these houses of worship?

I think one of the challenges that's not unique to congregations is the flooding, rising water, storm surges, rising sea level in low-lying areas where we have the potential to see more frequent water coming onto the land.

On a more fine-grained scale for the houses of worship, their number one challenge is planning. It's just getting together and talking about disaster planning. It's just really hard. Maybe it's a boring topic when the disaster's not happening. Nobody wants to talk about it.

One of the easiest and cheapest ways to enhance your resilience is just to talk it through and figure out what the threats are, where vulnerabilities are, and how can we manage those vulnerabilities to increase our resilience against those threats. And talking that through and then writing a plan and then taking it forward and saying, “Okay, now we have to think about the disaster that’s upon us.”

What are we doing? Do we have a phone tree to call everybody up and do we have cars or volunteer drivers? Do we have everybody's contact information all in one place? Do we have our go suitcase that has the plans of the buildings and a cell phone that's charged up and a flashlight and a hard hat or whatever you need, the things that you walk through? And then when we come back, what do we want to do? Have we stockpiled water? Do we have an emergency generator? Have we created a micro grid on site with solar and wind power so that we can charge up people's cell phones? Can we be a resilience hub for people to recover and play an even more meaningful role?

photo by: University of Texas, San Antonio

William Dupont acquires a soil sample at Midtown Houston's Trinity Episcopal.

What are the most important steps preservationists can take to protect historic buildings from climate change and natural disasters going forward, generally speaking?

Because historic buildings are historic, they have witnessed a lot of events and they've either survived or not. Whatever their track record is, it's an educational lesson. There's a wisdom that's embodied in the built environment. The repairs that people make to the building over time also become part of the legible record of what's worked.

We were studying these buildings to see how they had performed in previous hurricanes, not just what damage had happened in the most recent events. Some of it's really simple stuff like, “Oh, we should have a porch, or we should have natural ventilation, or we should plant a tree on the southwest side of the building, but not too close because we don't want it to fall on us if there's a windstorm. But we do want to get the shade.” And so, you plant a tree that does well in the high wind, and you don't leave lots of projectiles laying around on the ground in front of the building. Those are things that we can learn just by looking at what's happened in the past.

Those who are in the building professional trades have a huge body of knowledge that they can bring to bear on present- day needs for enhancing resilience. And that knowledge is not well known and largely untapped because people aren't expecting to find it in that quarter. That’s unfortunate.

Why has that been a challenge, and what are some potential solutions?

I think it's a communication problem and a sociopolitical barrier of some sort. There's an expectation when you say you're a historic preservation professional, that you care more about the past than the future. That's false. Preservation professionals are very concerned about the future and they're doing their work for that purpose. By using different words, and if you look at our language in the tools and the resilience roadmap, you won't find too many times where we're talking about historic preservation in typical terms. We often use the word heritage instead of preservation.

Being able to communicate to engineers and professional architects about the value of what's to be learned from the built environment and the knowledge that's available from what's survived past events and how they survived is what we want to get out there.

I think we need to do more to train engineers. We do not have any preservation engineering programs in this country. These exist in Europe and people have been saying we need more of this for decades. I believe the architects and engineers who are engaged in education need to go into civil and environmental engineering and construction science management programs and explain to the young students the value of understanding the built environment as it exists. Whether you call it historic or not. If it's old, there's knowledge there.

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Tim O'Donnell is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He spends most of his time reading about modern European history and hoping the Baltimore Orioles will turn their fortunes around. A Maryland native, he now lives in Brooklyn.

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