Designing for Heat and Hurricanes

Resiliency is critical for new buildings to provide shelter for their communities—especially when they’re surrounded by water.

The headlines are unrelenting this summer, broadcasting the misery of record heat, flooding, and storms that climate change is inflicting worldwide. Resiliency in the face of such devastation is among Perkins Eastman’s top sustainability goals, and while it applies to every new project we take on, architects are making noted advances in this pursuit at hot, storm-worn sites in the Caribbean and southwest Florida. The mission in these vulnerable areas is not only to design buildings that can withstand hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods, but to make them anchors of their communities for generations to come.

Arthur A. Richards PreK-8 School | St. Croix, US Virgin Islands

This combined elementary and middle school marks the rebirth of the Arthur A. Richards junior high school, which was located on St. Croix’s west coast before back-to-back hurricanes Irma and Maria destroyed it in 2017. Six years later, the school is rising on the site of a former elementary school, which was further inland and on a higher elevation. As the school’s architect of record, Perkins Eastman is overseeing the first new public school to be built anywhere in the US Virgin Islands for nearly 30 years. Before now, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would pay only as much as what was required to bring a damaged building back to its previous state—a “patch and repair,” Principal Mary Rankin says, which has kept affected schools trapped in a 1970s status quo.

A new law, however, requires FEMA to fund work that meets current design standards and code. Kliment Halsband Architects—A Perkins Eastman Studio, working with the Virgin Islands Department of Education, management consultants Witt-O’Brien’s, and FEMA, developed these forward-thinking education sector industry standards that now determine funding for the replacement and repair of damaged schools. “Now you can spend money on the things that you never thought about or dreamed of with these 1970s schools,” Rankin says.

A rendering of the K-5 academic building at the new Arthur A. Richards K-8 School in St. Croix, US Virgin Islands

Each building at the new Arthur A. Richards K-8 School has wide overhangs fashioned from latticed white metal, which provides shade while also reflecting the sun’s heat. Other design details include saturated colors to reflect St. Croix’s Caribbean culture, vertical fins that also help deflect the sun, and louvered panels to naturally ventilate the building. The plans were executed in partnership with DLR Group, which produced the design’s bridging documents. All renderings Copyright Perkins Eastman

When it opens in the fall of 2025, the Arthur A. Richards campus will boast seven buildings situated along a curving spine of colorful walkways, plantings, and shade trees. One of them will be a gymnasium that doubles as the community’s hurricane shelter. The school is designed for net zero energy—a crucial element because the school needs to function off-grid for up to 28 days after a natural disaster until reinforcement generators arrive on the island or until the grid is repaired. Plus, Rankin notes, “the power grid in general isn’t stable. Power can go out on any given day,” which makes the net-zero target even more important so children’s education won’t depend on a shaky power supply.

A rendering of the gym at the new Arthur A. Richards K-8 School in St. Croix, US Virgin Islands

The school’s gym doubles as the community’s FEMA-approved hurricane shelter.

The buildings will respond directly to the island’s climate and culture. Each structure features expansive roof overhangs that will provide deep shade at their entries, and additional shade structures will let students play or learn outside in relative comfort. The buildings are also sited to take advantage of prevailing breezes, which will flow through their semi-conditioned public spaces, while offices and classrooms will be fully air-conditioned. “It’s the idea of keeping people comfortable in their natural climate,” Rankin explains. Each building has a hipped roof with an oculus in the center to provide daylighting, while shading fins on the facades will protect windows from the sun’s heat and glare. The material selection was chosen with storm cleanup—and mold prevention—in mind. Ceramic tile, rubber flooring, and open-grid brise-block partitions are scrubbable surfaces that can survive wind, flooding, and the inevitable debris that comes with it.

A rendering of the Commons Innovation Hub at the new Arthur A. Richards K-8 School in St. Croix, US Virgin Islands

The Commons Innovation Hub serves as the campus core, offering performance venues, maker spaces, and the school’s main cafeteria. Large operable walls open out to an amphitheater, blurring the lines between indoor and outdoor space.

Virgin Islands Governor Albert Bryan, Jr. and dozens of school and government officials gathered for the ground breaking in February to herald what will become a new heart of their community. In addition to the new classrooms, the school will also offer a community pool, plus a second pool for instruction so local children can learn to swim from a young age. A full commercial kitchen will provide meals for area residents in addition to students and staff. “I’m excited that our students, faculty, and staff will soon have a modern, state-of-the-art school that supports not just education but the community,” US Virgin Islands Senator and Legislature President Novelle Francis Jr. said at the ground-breaking ceremony. “We are planting seeds of a legacy that will be with us in the future [for] citizens that we impact in this territory.”

Vista Cay at Shell Point | Fort Myers, Florida

Perkins Eastman was already in the process of designing Vista Cay, a new residential tower on The Island at Shell Point, when Florida’s largest continuing care retirement community got a direct hit from Hurricane Ian as it made landfall in Fort Myers last September. Located at the mouth of Caloosahatchee River, the island is ringed by two-story garden apartments, barely six feet above sea level. Every one of those ground-floor units flooded out, displacing more than 250 residents, according to local news reports. “All along it’s been understood that existing housing stock [in Florida] wasn’t going to be able to stand up to the worst of the worst storms, and Hurricane Ian proved that to be true,” says Daena Tamborini Padilla, the project’s principal-in-charge. “Buildings were designed to withstand wind and debris, but they weren’t designed for a [storm surge] height of 28 feet and then some.” It’s also worth noting that a new health center on campus—built to modern hurricane standards—still saw flooded electrical rooms, generator failure, and rooftop equipment screens that “blew around like shrapnel,” Senior Associate and project architect Jeannie Ahn says. Residents’ electric vehicles (EVs) caught fire when the salty stormwater corroded their lithium-ion batteries.

A rendering of the new Vista Cay residential tower on The Island at Shell Point in Fort Myers, FL

Vista Cay at Shell Point will offer 59 condominium units on 12 floors in a mix of lofts, mid-rise units, and penthouses. The building sits atop two floors of parking, shaded by a lattice screen, to keep homes well above the levels of a Category-5 hurricane storm surge. All renderings copyright Perkins Eastman

The design team took these details to heart as they adjusted plans for Vista Cay. “We’re trying to go above and beyond the standard because, in the wake of Hurricane Ian, we recognized it was not meeting Shell Point’s needs,” Tamborini Padilla says. Vista Cay will be the first of several residential towers that will eventually replace the low-lying garden apartments, according to the master plan Perkins Eastman designed. The first two levels will be parking garages that rise well above the flood height of Ian, which was just shy of a Category 5 hurricane. And whereas emergency generators had already been planned for support space on the second level, the team also moved the building’s main electrical equipment and fire pump to that level as well. The storm also informed their decision to move the EV and golf-cart charging areas away from the building due to the fire hazard. And they redesigned the roof so the building façade rises above its surface, thus protecting the HVAC equipment and negating the need for screens. “We’ve possibly learned more on this project because of the circumstances than any other senior living project,” Tamborini Padilla says.

Designing for Heat and Hurricanes Designing for Heat and Hurricanes 1

The current site, above left, shows the small garden apartments along the island’s perimeter. The master plan, right (which is still subject to change), replaces those apartments with residential towers. Vista Cay is labeled as South Tower. The plan also calls for eliminating surface parking lots and the ring road in favor of more green space and pedestrian/bike paths. 

On a broader scale, a new “town center” building is planned adjacent to Vista Cay with restaurants, offices, retail, guest suites, and meeting facilities—and it will serve as the community’s hurricane shelter, a more comfortable locale than the existing shelter in the employee parking garage. The master plan also calls for moving the island’s surface parking underneath the new buildings, which will increase green space and reduce the expanse of heat-absorbing asphalt, Ahn says. The plan will additionally dispatch with an existing ring road that separates residents from the water’s edge, replacing it with walking trails instead. “The hope is to change residents’ connection to the water and to each other,” Tamborini Padilla says—and to make their Florida retirement safer, more secure, and more resilient.