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    Joan Wickersham

    Spaulding Rehab puts climate change in concrete terms

    An airboat pulls up to evacuate patients and staff at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina.

    In the event of a disaster, a hospital relies on backup emergency power. But if the disaster is a flood, and the emergency equipment is located near or below sea level, the systems will fail and the situation for patients can become deadly. That happened in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And that’s why all the critical power and data equipment for Boston’s new Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital will be located above the first floor.

    Since Partners HealthCare began working with architects Perkins + Will on the new Spaulding, the team has focused on principles of environmentally sustainable design. The building incorporates high-performance glass and wall insulation, lots of natural light, natural ventilation in public areas, and light-colored paving to keep the site from overheating. But perhaps the most interesting thing about the project is that the client is spending money in anticipation of climate change.

    Most of central Boston is low-lying landfill, including virtually every site available for large-scale new construction. The new Spaulding is being built on the edge of the Charlestown Navy Yard. Assuming that the building will have an 80-year lifespan, the design team looked at the worst-case scenario of flooding during a major coastal storm — not just today, but at any point over the next century. As the earth’s climate warms, the melting of the polar ice caps is predicted to raise sea levels. As a result, a major storm 80 years from now would create floods between 2 feet and 5.5 feet higher than a comparable storm today. Looking at long-term risks, costs, and benefits, the Spaulding design team decided that it would be a prudent investment to put the hospital’s generators up on the roof.


    The fact that we’re beginning to see hard-headed financial decisions dictated by climate change predictions is significant. Elsewhere in the world, investment in construction informed by projected sea level rise is further along than it is here. Governments have built or are building expensive flood barriers to protect London, Venice, and the Netherlands. Clients in Europe and Asia have commissioned architects to design buildings that will rise above or float upon high water. In the United States, we’re just starting to think about adaptive and protective measures. From New York to Seattle, state and city governments have spent money on studies that show how vulnerable coastal cities are to sea level rise. Plans are underway for harbor barriers and ways to protect drinking water supplies, subway tunnels, power plants, and sewage treatment facilities. But so far the Spaulding team is unusual in taking future projections seriously enough to translate them literally into concrete terms. The good news is that it’s happening. The bad news is that it isn’t happening more.

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    There are still many people in America — both politicians and the public at large — who believe either that climate change is not happening, or that it is not likely to affect their lives. According to a Gallup poll reported just last month, 45 percent of Americans worry only a little or not at all about global warming — a percentage that has gone up by 17 percent since 2000. And 61 percent of Americans don’t think that global warming will pose a serious threat to them or their way of life during their lifetime. Because climate change happens so slowly and gradually, people are easily lulled into a sense of complacency, and there are plenty of politicians who are happy to tell them what they want to hear.

    But whether next spring is hot or cool, whether next winter is dry or snowy, the design team at Spaulding is looking past all that. They’re designing for a future that’s going to look different. We saw a glimpse of it in New Orleans in 2005: a hospital where the generators were underwater, and the air conditioners, elevators, and life support systems stopped working. Over the next 80 years, all of us, and our children and grandchildren, are going to age and become frail. It’s unlikely that we’ll lie in hospital beds someday thinking about how climate change has affected us. But maybe there will be safe hospital beds for us to lie in because somebody was thinking about climate change back in 2012.

    Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her website is www.joanwickersham.com.