14:47 Run Time | March 28, 2023
Nicholas Rajkovich, associate professor of architecture and director of the Resilient Buildings Lab at UB, studies how we can adapt our built environment to withstand extreme weather and other impacts of a changing climate. In this episode, Rajkovich tells host David Hill about his early passion for building (resulting, among other things, in the construction of a wastewater plant in his parents’ basement); how people can make their cities more resilient in an increasingly hostile climate; what’s in store for Western New York specifically, and whether we're ready for it (the Christmas blizzard provides a clue); and how Rajkovich and his students are working with the community to better prepare us for such events in the future.
David Hill: Growing up in Cleveland, Nicholas Rajkovich loved designing and building things. In high school, he volunteered for Habitat for Humanity and the Appalachia Service Project, which gave him an epiphany. You can use design and building to help others.
Today, as an associate professor of architecture at the University at Buffalo, and director of the Resilient Buildings Lab, Rajkovich is doing just that: applying his expertise in building resiliency to help cities adapt to the effects of extreme weather and climate change. An award-winning teacher, he is also working to ensure the architects and planners of tomorrow will have the knowledge they need to cope with an increasingly hostile climate.
Welcome to Driven to Discover, a University at Buffalo podcast that explores what inspires today's innovators. My name is David Hill, and I will be your host for Episode Three: Climate Resiliency.
David Hill: So, Nick, tell us about your early love for designing and building things.
Nick Rajkovich: Thanks, Dave. Growing up, I was really fortunate to have grandparents who... I had grandfathers who were machinists. I had a mom who was really involved in the theater and doing stagecraft. And so all of that really trickled down to me as a young kid. I learned how to work with machinery pretty early on. I learned how to build sets from my mom. And I think all of that started to translate into having an interest in how we design and construct things. And it wasn't really until much later that I realized that a love of art and love of science could start to come together in a career path like architecture.
David Hill: What kinds of things did you build?
Nick Rajkovich: When I was in elementary school and middle school, I was really fortunate to have a couple of great science teachers. And they actually encouraged me to build a wastewater treatment plant in my parents' basement. My mom was actually pretty supportive of doing something like that. But it made me realize that you could come up with ideas about what could be, and start to work through how to actually make those things happen.
David Hill: So you went to architecture school, and then worked as an architect for a couple of years, eventually landing at a utility company in California. Can you tell us a little bit about that job?
Nick Rajkovich: So I was originally hired at PG&E, or the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, in California to teach classes on energy efficient building design. PG&E was, and still is, one of the leading utilities, in terms of trying to drive down its greenhouse gas emissions. But at the time, we had these briefings by hydrologists, who were saying, year over year, the amount of snow that was in the Sierra snowpack was going down. Which was eventually going to really impact how they produced electric power with dams. In addition, because of the dry conditions, there were a lot more fires that were happening in California, which were certainly damaging homes and equipment. And we are seeing many more heat waves that were starting to happen in California.
And all of those things made me realize that, even if we turn off our greenhouse gas emissions today, we've locked in a fair amount of warming that will happen for decades into the future. I was really concerned that the utility wasn't doing enough to think about adapting to the impacts of climate change. And so that partially led me to think about going back to school to study that more.
David Hill: And that brings us to now, you're a faculty expert here at UB in climate adaptation and resiliency. How would you define what climate adaptation and resiliency is for folks who might not be aware of that?
Nick Rajkovich: I think, in simple terms, as we think about adaptation, the idea of adaptation is that we're trying to make changes in our different systems to begin to deal with the changes that we expect to see because of a shift in climate. And resilience, in many ways, is that end state where we have reduced vulnerability in the community. So that when we have these shocks and stresses that may come with climate change, they do little to no impact. Both to physical systems, like our buildings and infrastructure, but also to the people who live in cities as well.
David Hill: What are some ways then that governments, builders and even homeowners should be thinking about adapting their buildings and cities for a changing climate?
Nick Rajkovich: So it's a great question. I think it really depends on where you live. So if you live on the West Coast of the United States, you may be facing more wildfires or drought. And so thinking about things like bringing in fire-resistant materials to the design of buildings, or to using water-conserving fixtures in buildings, is going to be really critical to begin to adapt and be more resilient to those things in the future. Here in New York State, we're fortunate not to have drought, right now at least. And we certainly don't have wildfires happening as much in Upstate New York. So thinking about how we adapt to changes in things like precipitation.
So in Western New York in particular, we've actually seen about a 30% increase in the total rain and snowfall that we get in the fall. Just this past winter, we had two huge snow events that happened in the meteorological fall. And that's something that really we have to be concerned about going forward in the future.
David Hill: And thinking about the precipitation that we experience here in Western New York, you think about even just some years ago with the November storm, with the wet heavy snow. Is that the sort of thing that we might see more of, just because temperatures here are likely to climb a little bit, so we're not going to get as much freezing?
Nick Rajkovich: Yeah, over time, the prediction is that we're going to slowly move from having heavy wet snow events into freezing rain, and then into just rain. But just with the blizzard that we had this past December, when you get 50 or 60 inches of snow, that translates to five or six inches of rain. And so that type of rain event could actually cause a significant amount of flooding in our cities and cause damage to our infrastructure. Other things that I'm really personally worried about is, if we start to have more freezing rain events, like the “October surprise” that we had about a decade and a half ago. That left tens of millions of dollars worth of damage and plunged people into not having power for days to weeks. And so these are all the kinds of things that we really need to start to think about.
It's hard to think about in the wintertime, but we're also going to see higher heat events in the summertime. So we've started to see some heat waves that last five, six, seven days. And in a place like Buffalo, where a lot of people still don't have air conditioning, that really can lead to significant negative health outcomes.
David Hill: So what can we, in Buffalo here, do then to begin preparing for some of these events?
Nick Rajkovich: Some of my favorite things are what are called nature-based solutions. So those are things like planting trees, doing things like creating areas for water to actually recharge back into the soil. But also, I think really working with communities to make sure that our social structures are more resilient to these events is really important. I think that the blizzard we just experienced exposed some of the challenges that we have in the city and the region, responding to these types of events in the future.
So for low income residents, people were asked to start to stockpile a week or two of food to be ready for the blizzard. But if you're on a supplemental nutrition program, or food stamps as they're colloquially called, it's really hard to get enough food to be able to shelter in place for that kind of time period. I think it also showed that we have fewer resources in places that tend to be low income, in minority communities. So people weren't able to walk to or get to different things like warming shelters and things in many parts of the city. And as we plan for these things in the future, thinking through not only what people need on a personal level, but also what we're doing regionally, is going to be really important to not have deaths that come from these types of storms.
David Hill: Are there cities in the country that are doing things right and starting to think about how to prepare for these types of events?
Nick Rajkovich: So I don't want people to get the impression that Buffalo and Western New York aren't doing things to begin to prepare for this. But I think, sometimes there's a feeling that we're sheltered from a lot of the major events that we're seeing out West. So we're perhaps not being as aggressive as we could be. But that is to say also, though, that Erie County is actually putting together a climate plan right now that is really looking at some of these different resilience issues. And I'm hopeful, in the next year or so that, as that gets rolled out, it'll be something that communities can look to, to begin to increase their own preparedness.
Other places in the region that I think are doing it right, our sister city in many ways, Cleveland, Ohio, actually had a very aggressive climate action plan that also looked at equity and resilience. The thing that I think they did really well is they asked people who were participating in that process to first do racial equity training. So that they grounded the discussion in issues of racial equity, and had to think through those issues as part of that overall design of the plan. The city of Ann Arbor recently passed a millage. So they're increasing their property taxes by about $7 million a year total to begin to fund some of their climate greenhouse gas emission reductions and also adaptation programs. And I think, in the future, as we start to think about wanting to prepare our buildings, prepare our cities for that, having those additional sources of income are going to be really important for cities to tackle this in a meaningful way.
David Hill: Now, there's something we've been hearing about more so in recent years, and Buffalo has even claimed to be one, and that's the concept of a climate haven. What exactly is a climate haven?
Nick Rajkovich: So the idea of a climate haven is that, as we see significant climate change in places like California and the Southwest, or we start to see major changes around the globe, that people will be moving and looking for places where there are relatively few impacts. The Great Lakes region, and Buffalo and Duluth in particular, have been identified as places that might fare well under a changing climate. The primary reason for that is because we have access to a tremendous amount of fresh water. And we have fewer significant storms. We really don't get hurricanes. We really don't see fires and those kinds of things in Western New York. The idea that more people will be moving here is an idea that I think has excited a lot of city, county, regional officials as they try to think about ways to encourage people to move back to where we live.
David Hill: But there's really more to it than just, say, putting up a sign or rolling out the red carpet and saying, "Come on in, folks. We're a climate haven." Is Buffalo's building stock ready to accept an influx of folks?
Nick Rajkovich: Not by any stretch of the imagination. So Buffalo actually has the oldest building stock in the United States, as estimated by the U.S. census. Many houses have asbestos insulation on pipes, or they have lead paint still on the walls. Or just very simply, they have no insulation in the houses at all, which exposes people to a wide range of temperatures. So getting into these houses and getting the lead paint out, getting that lead exposure out, removing harmful chemicals like asbestos. But also, insulating and weatherizing these homes for a future climate is going to be really critical for Buffalo to be set up as a climate haven in the future.
David Hill: So is that the kind of work that you're doing in the Resilient Buildings Lab?
Nick Rajkovich: In large part, on the research side, we're definitely looking at some of these issues to do modeling, or other types of studies, to understand how we need to adapt our buildings to make them more resilient. But one of the things that I'm actually most excited about is that we also do a lot of work with community organizations. So PUSH Buffalo, which stands for People United for Sustainable Housing. We have a great partnership with them going back several years, where we're trying to develop workforce education and training to set up the next generation of people who will actually work on making these buildings more resilient to climate change.
One project that we're actually working on right now involves a number of our students. So PUSH Buffalo actually has six houses that are on the West Side of Buffalo. And these houses have been vacant for a number of years. The students in our Department of Architecture are actually working on redesigning those houses to be to a really high level of energy efficiency, what's called a Passive House Standard. So that when people do move into those houses, they're perhaps not exposed to low temperatures during blizzard events, or high temperatures during heat waves that we might see in the future.
And so that's really rewarding for me because these are the students who are going to be dealing with climate change as one of the primary issues in their careers. And by building partnerships with community organizations like that, they're learning how to work within the community itself. But also, how to make Buffalo stronger, both physically and socially.
David Hill: This has been great, Nick. Thanks so much for taking time and joining us.
Nick Rajkovich: Thanks for having me. I really appreciate the opportunity to share some of the work that we're doing.