Designing for Disaster


ninth ward

Ninth Ward, November 2006. SED Flickr.

Natural disasters can impact any of us, anywhere, at any time. Over the past decade, the financial toll in the United States alone has exceeded $100 billion, and the loss of life and emotional toll is immeasurable. No region of the country is immune—81 events in 38 states were declared natural disasters in the U.S. in 2010.

The National Building Museum’s upcoming exhibition Designing for Disaster will examine how we assess environmental risks and how we can create policies, plans, and designs yielding safer, more disaster-resilient communities.

Two primary questions will help guide the Museum’s approach:

1) Where should we build? and
2) How should we build?

The purpose of the exhibition is to raise awareness about proven and emerging tools and strategies available to diminish the environmental and economic impact of natural disasters and, most importantly, to help save lives.

Designing for Disaster will discuss disaster mitigation as an evolving science. The exhibition will highlight the tools and strategies that today’s planners, engineers, architects, designers, and business and community leaders are investigating and adopting to construct more durable buildings and communities both here and abroad.

The exhibition also will showcase innovative research, cutting-edge materials and technologies, and new thinking about how to work with natural systems and the environment. Designing for Disaster will present a range of viable responses that are functional, pragmatic, sustainable, and also beautiful.

Through unique objects, captivating graphics, and multimedia—including video testimonials—the exhibition will explore new solutions for, and historical responses to, a range of natural disasters encompassing both geological and meteorological hazards: earthquakes, tsunamis, subsidence, volcanoes, flooding, wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, and other severe storms.

The exhibition will be organized by place because geography and topography are primary determining factors for calculating the natural risks inherent to any location. Visitors will undertake a virtual journey across the United States, and as they “travel” across the country, they will encounter the case studies.

The story will begin in the Pacific Northwest and along the coast of California, where earthquakes, tsunamis, and mudslides loom largest. Turning east toward Arizona or the mountain states, the storyline will shift to wildfires before heading to tornado alley and the flood-prone basin of the Mississippi River and its feeders. As the visitor travels down the Mississippi to the Gulf Coast, hurricanes become the primary focus and threat, all the way north along the eastern seaboard from Florida to Maine. Some locations may be represented by multiple disasters. Maps—including flood insurance, topographic, or Doppler radar—will be used to identify and situate each location and its natural hazard risks.

Locations will be selected based on a variety of criteria: frequency, severity, magnitude of loss (both human and capital), vulnerability to multiple disaster types, legacy of proven innovations (or failures), and potential for lessons to be learned from other countries that face similar threats. The element of surprise (a disaster threat that is not typically associated with a given location) will be taken into account.

Visitors will be able to explore the tools available to help them evaluate and mitigate their own risks, and they will learn how they can contribute to disaster planning efforts in their own community. At the broadest level, the exhibition will promote the idea that we as individual citizens and as interest groups have an active role to play in protecting our communities, ourselves, and our property.

An array of education initiatives will accompany the exhibition.

For more information about the exhibition and sponsorship opportunities, please contact Kate Haw, Vice President for Development, at 202.272.2448 ext. 3709 or via email at

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