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Storm Arwen – What we can learn as designers? A personal perspective

Design considerations By Kevin McGee, Associate Director, Geoenvironmental – 03 December 2021

Lightening forks across a dark sky at night


Kevin smiling in a white shirt and suit jacket

Kevin McGee

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Storm Arwen – what trouble you have caused... Seven days without power and counting, and a home that is still not weather-tight. I am not writing this out of desire for martyrdom, rather, as a reflection and learning moment for us as designers.

Storm Arwen was, by UK standards, particularly unusual. Here in Alnwick, Northumberland, not only was a peak gust of 98mph recorded, we also experienced sustained gusts above 90mph for several hours. This caused widespread structural, infrastructure and catastrophic environmental damage, all fuelled by an anomalously warm North Sea. The torrential rain and unusual wind direction only served to accentuate the problems: to have a northerly wind sustained at such high speeds is virtually unheard of in England. The Met Office also confirmed that the same monitoring station that recorded winds of 98mph went offline shortly afterwards….

Much of our infrastructure and built environment is constructed and maintained to resist the forces of the prevailing south-westerly airflows - other aspects are given much less attention. The lack of maintenance and attention given to our buildings and infrastructure exposed to northerly winds left extensive ‘weak spots’ which quickly succumbed during the storm, particularly where there were high sustained wind speeds. Much of the built environment and infrastructure that I personally witnessed as failing was aging and had not been maintained on its northerly aspects (for example, one of the local utilities providers confirmed that the last inspection in our vicinity took place some 30 years ago).

So what can we learn from this?

  • To design for a changing climate, we cannot assume it is ‘today’s weather plus 30%’. It isn’t. The projections on increasing global temperatures might look like a smooth curve on a graph, but don’t be deceived. There are some big bumps along the way and we need to plan for the unexpected.
  • The maintenance regimes on the UK’s aging infrastructure and housing stock are being done with the back door left open, maintenance needs to be a 360° approach.
  • UK infrastructure needs major investment to support domestic decarbonisation: the people worst affected by this storm were those who had decarbonised and were solely reliant on electricity.
  • Many of our adopted guidance documents and standards are only as good as the scientific data gathered: much of the UK’s weather / climate data comes from RAF (or former RAF) installations and so is biased to the low-lying areas of southern / eastern Britain. If we are to truly understand what we are designing for, we need a much more comprehensive and expansive set of weather / climate monitoring stations.

Whilst this episode has been, and continues to be, deadly and difficult for those affected, I am looking at this positively and hope it can act as a catalyst for change.