As a profession, planners generally are trained to focus on the explicit characteristics of a building: is the structure single-family or multi-family? What are the setbacks on the property? How tall is the structure? Though this type of data has value, it can sometimes overshadow the subtle tweaks and modifications people have made over time to adapt to the unique challenges of climate and geography. Height, setbacks and land uses are subject to change over time, but the architectural language of a region, or its vernacular, generally has ways of reasserting itself.
Here along the Gulf Coast, seasonal flooding and hurricanes are the dominant natural challenges, so it’s no surprise then that a number of adaptations have been developed to offer a measure of protection against flooding and storm surge. One adaptation that has generally taken precedence above all others has been structural elevation. A great place to witness the evolution of this trend across time is New Orleans. Recognizing this, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has put together a report chronicling the various ways in which elevation has played a role in the natural evolution of the city.
The report shows how elevation emerged as a viable adaptation strategy during Spanish rule. It traces the development of elevated structures in New Orleans up to the present day. Some of these historic examples still have lessons to offer to us today on the topic of flood mitigation. For example, a common building practice was to build a raised basement on the ground level and have the primary living quarters located above. The basements would generally be reserved for simple domestic use, such as kitchen or storeroom space. Even when larger national styles were introduced into New Orleans in the early 20th century, the practice of building upon a raised basement was retained. Newer structures also incorporated a surprising variety of stair walls, which were angled, curved or stepped. The stair walls helped make stairs and entryways pleasing architectural features in their own right. The value of raised basements was such that when the city first implemented zoning, raised basements were excluded from city height requirements, so long as the basement rooms were not used for habitation or assembly.
While the city of New Orleans is prized for its aesthetic value and beauty, there was also an implicit code of form and design practices that people used to adjust to the moist, subtropical climate. These practices ranged from good site selection to the careful use of building materials. But, elevation was an important factor as well. The value of this design body of knowledge may not be as self-evident to us today, but it is no less important than modern regulations and building codes. FEMA’s report on the historical application of building elevation should be of great value to coastal planners.