After the Southern tornadoes, Nikolich, his business partner Marshall Anderson, AIA, and Andrew Bryan, an office intern, responded to an almost immediate request from AIA-Birmingham for volunteers to participate in a four-hour ATC-45 training course with other architects, structural engineers and building inspectors. The course qualified them to assess damaged property and evaluate whether homes were safe to return to. The training course is developed by the Applied Technology Council, Redwood City, Calif., an organization that develops engineering resources to mitigate hazardous effects in the built environment. “This is a unique way we could give,” Nikolich says. “It’s one thing to give financially, but this was a way we could be directly involved by using our skills and knowledge as design professionals.” While inspecting homes in Tuscaloosa, Nikolich found some houses appeared to be unharmed but upon closer inspection major structural issues made the houses uninhabitable. Other structures suffered only superficial damages. Plenty fell in between.
The mayor’s office in Birmingham, in conjunction with AIA-Birmingham, sent a request to the national chapter of AIA for a Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team (R/UDAT) for rebuilding assistance for its Pratt community. R/UDAT is supported and organized by AIA national and comprises individuals across the country who have expertise in planning, design and the economics of rebuilding communities afflicted by disaster. Two members of FEMA working in Pratt have been attending the meetings, as well, so the organizations can work in tandem to ensure they are productive. AIA national, AIA-Birmingham and the city of Birmingham will fund the team. The initial visit with the team leader and administrative staff was completed in August; a design charrette took place a couple weeks later.
R/UDAT will have several challenges, the foremost being how to reconstruct a community in the wake of this type of disaster. Pratt, a primarily African-American community with a population of about 10,965, has seen a population decline of 12 percent during the past decade. “We’re going to ask [R/UDAT] how to solve this issue in the Pratt community and how to regenerate it,” Nikolich explains. “How do you take the assets and liabilities that are there and work with those? That’s their expertise and responsibility.”
Widespread destruction and community demolishment has raised memories of the EF-5 tornado that ravaged Greensburg, Kan., in 2007. Greensburg made national news when it decided to rebuild using only sustainable practices. Youngs hopes to see similar smart and universal building practices in the rebuilding of the South. “A lot of older individuals live in these Southern areas and need universal design in their homes,” he asserts. “They need green building applied to what they’re doing to help them with future costs of operation. If you do simple things to a home through insulation and smart materials, you can save so much in the future.”
Nikolich is unsure whether towns will rebuild as Greensburg was able to. “My understanding is that Greensburg was a really strong community that had the momentum and resources to rebuild,” he says. “You have to figure out how to address each community individually and come up with an appropriate response.” Nikolich also has seen the question raised of what is an appropriate level to build to so structures can resist forces. Wind speeds in the Alabama tornadoes reached 200 mph. “I walked through Tuscaloosa two weeks [after the tornado] and saw significant buildings reduced to rubble, including their emergency management center,” he remembers. “It’s hard to imagine designing something that can withstand those forces. It is hard to imagine adjusting building codes to do that because the cost burden on the clients would be so high it wouldn’t be practical. You can make sure there are safer areas in buildings for people to get to. I think that’s part of the dialogue that’s going to come out of this.”