Weathering the Storm: Design Safety for Hotels

MIAMI—You don’t need a meteorologist to tell you that the recent hurricane season has been brutal. In September, there were Hurricanes Irma and Maria (Category 5) and Jose (Category 4) waging destruction against everything in their path. As many residents and businesses work hard to rebuild and reopen, these natural disasters offer lessons to be learned.

Architect Kobi Karp is no stranger to hurricanes of varying magnitudes, and recently weathered through Hurricane Irma as it hit areas of Miami and South Florida. He is the president and founder of Kobi Karp Architecture & Interior Design, focusing on mixed-use and hospitality projects, residential and retail.

“The structural integrity of our hotels was mostly safe. Evacuations were ordered as a precaution, but I believe the hotels were fortified enough and many remained operational during the storm,” he said.

Today, the city of Miami is rebounding.

“Everything is good, and life in Miami is normalizing once again. Damage recovery is under control and progressing,” he said. “The majority of hotels have fared very well with little to no damage. There were a small number of hotels in Miami Beach that experienced extensive damage and have been shut down, but that is a very small percentage. A large number of the hotels were able to resume business as usual within a very short time. The storm surge and wind velocity were less than we were expecting, and what we did get was tolerated extremely well.”

Lessons from the past have informed the future and, as a result, the design and architectural landscape has been altered in the city. Karp explained that when Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida in 1992, it forever changed the building codes and their methods of enforcement.

“After Andrew, massive modifications and improvements were enacted. These building codes were integrated into newer buildings and have been very successful in maintaining structural integrity and reducing storm damage,” he said. “The biggest impact during the recent Hurricane Irma was in the extent of power outages. Many homes and businesses were affected due to power lines being damaged by tree canopies and complicating repair efforts. This impact could be greatly reduced by moving power lines underground as a future preventative measure.”

Among the benefits, Karp explained that the strength and fortification against wind velocity have been greatly improved, offering a much higher degree of protection during storms.

“In addition, building standards have progressed in the way they address potential storm surges and flooding. For example, during the recent storm, Brickell Ave. received a great deal of attention due to the flooding the area experienced during Irma,” he said. “However, if you look at the individual buildings on Brickell Ave., you’ll notice that most are elevated well above street level by steps. Due to this building feature, the lobbies and first floors were preserved and evaded flood damage and by the next day, all the water was gone.”

Another major change is the landscape, with a great number of old trees lost due to the storm.

“As far as the new building codes changing the look and feel of hotels, I will tell you that any good architect can follow the new guidelines and codes without sacrificing aesthetics. It’s our job to design resilient and solid structures that also look beautiful and sleek; it’s what we do,” he said.

As hurricanes become more prevalent in other parts of the country, architects and developers may wish to look to Miami as a studying ground for future projects.

“These days, hurricanes and extreme storms can reach all the way up to New York. The building codes and, in particular, the glazing systems implemented in South Florida should be emulated throughout the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf of Mexico coastlines,” he said. “The strength of our fortification designs and systems have been proven to be superior and essential to coastal living.”

According to Karp, there’s still work to be done in terms of design and mitigating the impact of natural disasters.

“We are pioneering the integration of flood design in new buildings; this is a subject that needs to be addressed by any architect or hotelier working in coastal areas,” he said. “We are constantly striving to improve and implement the latest in storm-surge and wind-velocity-resistant designs, moving way beyond the standard building codes in some cases. Storm protection and flood elevation are always a topic of significance in South Florida architecture and building circles, as it should be in all cities near the coast or in the path of frequent extreme weather.”