America’s First Vertical Evacuation Shelter

Seismologists are predicting a one-in-three probability of a catastrophic earthquake with a very high likelihood for a subsequent tsunami to hit the coast of the Pacific Northwest within the next 50 years. With the majority of the coast wholly unprepared, a few places are taking steps to prepare for such a disaster. One such location is at Westport, Washington. In working with TCF Architecture and Degenkolb Engineers, this coastal community has designed and built an elementary school gymnasium which acts as a bunker – able to withstand the forces of an earthquake and tsunami, while protecting up to 1,000 students and community members.

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Photo source: TCF
Photo source: TCF

The structure is surrounded by steel columns, clad in concrete masonry and metal walls which are anchored by concrete piles extending 55-feet into the earth and then finished with a six-inch-thick steel-and-concrete roof. Once again, concrete demonstrates its versatility as well as its capacity to endure some of the most extreme environmental deviances that the world experiences.

The fortifications that were installed in the Ocosta Elementary School gymnasium project meet the guidelines from FEMA as well as the forthcoming codes from the American Society of Civil Engineers, for what is known as vertical evacuation shelters. These shelters differ from the traditional horizontal evacuation methods which rely on safe pathways for civilians to escape oncoming threats such as reinforced roadways or bridges. Rather than being designed as an escape route, the vertical evacuation method is designed to provide shelter and protect people caught in the midst of the disaster’s path.

Photo credit: TCF
Photo credit: TCF

According to TCF, this elementary school is the first vertical shelter in North America. Though built as a bunker, the building was also designed in a way to make it more relatable to elementary students who average a height of four feet tall. In order to soften the building’s stocky form, the architects at TCF created a peaked roof which is a common rustic architectural element in the region. The building was also covered in small windows and doors as a means to break from its monolithic form into more manageable visual spaces. The further coloured the metal siding with tones that match the local environment as well as graphics and photos that reflect the history of the area in agriculture, maritime and logging.

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It is hoped that preventative measures such as with the construction of the vertical evacuation/school structure will continue to spread in popularity as people grow to understand that they are being put in place as a means to save thousands of lives. With concrete playing such a pivotal role in the erection of such infrastructures, it just goes to show how important it is to ensure the integrity of concrete mix designs and optimization of strength.


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