A trip to Puerto Rico post–Hurricane Maria teaches Minnesota architecture students about the complex challenges of their future profession

By Amy Goetzman
Photography by Shine On Photos

This is not the story of a design problem solved, an inspiring creative space, or a visionary architecture firm. There isn’t a new museum, school, or house to admire. The reality is, there are far fewer houses in Puerto Rico than there were before September 2017, when Hurricane Maria ripped the island apart. The story behind this particular architectural challenge is that sometimes you can’t just fix things, bounce back, build a new house. At least not right away.

That’s what a group of architecture students from Dunwoody College of Technology and the University of Minnesota learned when they traveled to Puerto Rico a few months after the storm. Cell coverage was patchy, and the electrical grid was in tatters (more than a year later, the lights are still out on many parts of the island). The group, led by John Dwyer, AIA, chair of Dunwoody’s architecture program and cofounder of D/O; Laura Cayere-King, AIA, Dunwoody instructor and project manager at Peterssen/Keller Architecture; Jacob Mans, AIA, University of Minnesota assistant professor and cofounder of Decentralized Design Lab; and Alex Heid, adjunct faculty at the U and cofounder of Landbase Ventures, brought diapers and bottled water to the island. Sometimes, that’s how architecture begins.

Hurricane Maria caused an estimated $90 billion in damage to the island, destroying 70,000 homes and significantly damaging another 300,000. The U students wanted to help rebuild. Mans knew that Dwyer had founded a community design studio in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina, so he reached out and discovered that the Dunwoody group was already making connections in Puerto Rico. The two programs coordinated their travel plans.

They decided to focus on Ponce, the island’s second-largest city. Dating back to the 1700s, Ponce’s historic architecture delighted the young designers-in-training, and the unceasingly friendly residents urged the students to focus on the beauty that the storm didn’t destroy. A joyous riot of paint colors—turquoise, yellow, pink—defines the city amid rebounding, lush vegetation. Yet the needs are tremendous. The two studios, in conjunction with Ponce Neighborhood Housing Services, an established community organization, are now working on recovery efforts.

Dwyer’s Katrina experience showed him that architects can be a valuable part of disaster recovery—as long as they manage expectations and come in committed to listening to the community. “It’s important to find out what the actual need is, not what we—outsiders with limited understanding—think the need is,” he says.

“We went down with a research agenda,” says Mans. “First, we were observers. We had a lot of conversations with our students around questions like: When do we intervene? What kinds of knowledge should be imported? How do we engage with residents? As much as we would have liked to begin an actionable project in Puerto Rico, there’s so much else that needs to be done first.”

Cayere-King grew up in Puerto Rico, but she hadn’t been back in nearly a decade. She was stunned bythe seemingly endless expanse of blue plastic FEMA tarps she saw as her plane approached the runway.“There was a sense that the entire island had been burned by the wind. So much was just gone,” she says. “But already things were starting to grow again. The island was very, very green with new plant life. It is the beautiful color of new beginning.”

The students started by learning about Puerto Rico’s history, climate, colonization, and culture to get a grasp of the issues that need to be understood before rebuilding. “Hurricane Maria damaged Puerto Rico, but the real damage was done when the Spanish [colonizers] came in,” says Dwyer.

The island has also suffered as a U.S. territory. In recent years, its economy has transitioned from agriculture to tourism and pharmaceutical manufacturing. But that change has left Puerto Rico dependent on supplies from outside; there is only about a week’s supply of food on the island at any time, a dangerous vulnerability that the storm exposed.

Over and over, the students learned that Ponce is on a mission to become more self-reliant. Instead of rejoining the electrical grid, for example, many residents invested in solar panels. Some creative rebuilding efforts were already under way. “The people are incredibly capable. We could go in and build houses, but that wouldn’t actually help, because they can do it better, faster, and cheaper themselves,” says Dwyer. “Our job is to bring tools and resources so they can expand their own capability.”

The students assessed neighborhoods, creating maps that prioritize properties: houses with tarps on roofs, houses that need significant repair, and houses that were totally destroyed. The Dunwoody studio created a book illustrating strategies for storm-resistant building, such as straps that tie roof trusses to wall plates and below-grade, stem-wall foundation connections. The U studio is looking at ways to coordinate the many organizations that want to help. A cohesive, long-term strategy is needed for a recovery process that will take at least a decade.

Elizabeth Colón-Rivera, executive director of Ponce Neighborhood Housing Services, says that rebuilding with the help of architects and students will make a huge difference. “One of the biggest problems that Puerto Rico has had relating to planning and construction is the lack of guidance regarding construction in compliance with regulations and assertive urban planning,” she says. “The long-term rebuilding efforts will ensure that people will be living in safer, more secure, and more storm-resistant homes, so they don’t have go through the traumatic experience of losing their homes again.”

Someday, the two programs might build something. The Dunwoody studio might design greenhouses and a farmers market for when the island regains agricultural capability. The U group is studying transitional housing and energy systems. But right now, design is not the focus.

Instead, Mans says, the students’ Puerto Rico experience will help them create resilient work in a world that will see economic, political, and climate change. Already, the U group has applied knowledge from Ponce to projects in areas destroyed by the California wildfires.

The younger Dunwoody program is evolving to emphasize public-interest design. Through projects like Ponce, students are learning to manage complexity. “This is the practice of architecture, increasingly,” says Dwyer. “No client is polished and ready to go. There are funding challenges, many stakeholders, much more fluid conditions, maybe conflict with community leaders. You learn to think on your feet, adjust to constant changes, and move on to the next aspect if something doesn’t work out.”

“We’re really hopeful that the way we’re evolving as a school will parallel how the profession is evolving,” says Cayere-King. “The students initially struggled with the idea that they’re not building right now. But they’re learning so much about everything that comes before building. First, we lay groundwork and learn how to rebuild. Next year, maybe we’ll get something built.”