RISD Grad Students Predict Historic Impact of Sea-Level Rise

By ecoRI News staff

The graduate students used augmented- and virtual-reality technology to present futuristic visions of Newport’s historic Point Neighborhood, which is increasingly threatened by the effects of climate change. (RISD)

The graduate students used augmented- and virtual-reality technology to present futuristic visions of Newport’s historic Point Neighborhood, which is increasingly threatened by the effects of climate change. (RISD)

NEWPORT, R.I. — Graduate students in the Rhode Island School of Design’s Interior Architecture program recently presented predictions for what sea-level rise could mean to the low-lying historic Point Neighborhood, which is home to one of the highest concentrations of original 18-century homes in the state.

Sea levels have risen 10 inches along the coast of Rhode Island since 1930, and are expected to rise as much as 3 feet over the next 50 years.

In April 2016, a four-day conference titled Keeping History Above Water was organized by the Newport Restoration Foundation to address the challenges posed to historic buildings and neighborhoods from sea-level rise and storm surge. The conference emphasized practical approaches to protecting historic built environments in both the near and long term, at individual building, infrastructure and policy levels. The event featured an international slate of panelists with expertise in climate science, heritage preservation and community organizing.

Included in the conference was the presentation of a case study on the effects of sea-level rise on one of Newport's most significant historic properties: the Christopher Townsend House at 74 Bridge St. in the Point Neighborhood.

Recently acquired by the Newport Restoration Foundation (NRF), the house is just two blocks inland from Newport Harbor, at an intersection that sits only 4 feet above sea level. The home is subject to tidal and groundwater flooding and storm surge, so as storms continue to increase in frequency and strength and tidal levels continue to rise, 74 Bridge St. faces increasing levels of flooding.

The case study, developed by NRF in partnership with Union Studio Architecture & Community Design and Building Conservation Associates, considered potential flood scenarios and short- and long-term strategies for tackling the challenge of keeping this — and other houses like it — above water.

Expanding on the work begun with Keeping History Above Water, the RISD students were challenged to create their vision for adapting the Point Neighborhood over the next 80 years using the latest tools in 3-D modeling and augmented and virtual realities.

The students developed phased proposals and renderings responding to sea-level rise on Bridge Street, using the themes of “accommodate,” “protect,” “retreat” and “empower” to guide their thinking. Ideas ranging from vertical city blocks to blue streets and canals were considered.
With the support of the van Beuren Charitable Foundation, the students focused on five buildings on Bridge Street where questions around historic preservation, rising sea levels and community collide.

The graduate students shared their design interventions for protecting Newport's architectural heritage May 26 at open house at 74 Bridge St. Attendees this were able to see the effects of sea-level rise for themselves, and how this issue could be addressed at the macro and micro levels.

Five different ideas were presented using cutting-edge virtual and augmented reality tools, such as Google Cardboard and a HTC VIVE headset, to help participants understand both the magnitude of the threat and newly imagined ways for historic neighborhoods to combat it.