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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

ODU/Hampton U Students Partner to Aid Low-Lying Norfolk Neighborhood

The two students seated next to radio host Cathy Lewis were clearly making an impression.

On a recent segment of "HearSay With Cathy Lewis," Old Dominion University civil engineering student Alex Carlson and Hampton University architecture student Zach Robinson told the long-time local media personality about the unique collaboration between schools, aimed at increasing the flood resilience of a historic Norfolk neighborhood.

Students investigated the 175-home Chesterfield Heights neighborhood, which was surveyed more than 100 years ago, and suggested ways that the historic homes can be protected from rising water beyond options such as lifting each individual home, building an unsightly sea wall or abandoning the low-lying neighborhood altogether.

During the broadcast, as Carlson and Robinson delivered clear, detailed descriptions of their plans to make Chesterfield Heights the country's first climate change-adapted neighborhood, Lewis offered her prediction: "I can't wait to see what great things Alex and Zach's engineering and architecture firm does in the future."

A podcast of the WHRV radio program is available at the "HearSay" website.

Media interest in the project, organized by Skip Stiles, executive director of Wetlands Watch, is matched by interest from Norfolk City planners. The day before their appearance on public radio, the team of students from Old Dominion and Hampton presented the results of their year-long study to city planners in a session of the Norfolk Watershed Taskforce held at the downtown Slover Public Library.

The project, which was funded through the Virginia Sea Grant program, was a reunion of sorts for architecture students from Hampton and civil and environmental engineering students from Old Dominion. They worked collaboratively on the Department of Energy's 2011 Solar Decathlon competition, designing and constructing a zero-emission home and placing 14th in the international Solar Decathlon finals in Washington, D.C.

Faculty leaders of that project - Mujde Erten-Unal, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering; and Mason Andrews, professor of architecture - joined again to lead the neighborhood resilience initiative.

"It has been a fascinating experience, and very rewarding for the students to work on a project such as this," Erten-Unal said. "It's very clear that climate change and sea level rise is very concerning in this community, and a University priority."

Andrews added, "It's great to work again with our old friends." She hopes the project will continue with a new cohort of senior engineering and architecture students in the fall.

In their presentation to the Norfolk Watershed Taskforce, and during the HearSay appearance, the students talked about the low-cost solutions that the city and homeowners can employ to protect their properties, such as increasing the capacity of storm sewers and burying storm water-storing cisterns under streets raised slightly with the installation of semi-permeable concrete.

To design the adaptations, the group had to address the neighborhood's coastline, streets, storm water drainage system, codes and regulations and even the unique attributes of individual homes.

The students found in their research and surveying that no one solution would work for the neighborhood, or any similar flood-prone residential area.

"There is not just one solution. There is not one thing that is going to solve all the problems in a neighborhood like this," Carlson said.

Stiles is particularly excited about the multidisciplinary, multi-university team that joined forces on the project. For the Chesterfield Heights neighborhood, it means different areas of expertise being applied to the complex problem. For the students, it's an opportunity to practice tackling complex issues in teams, where different members bring different strengths.

"This is what happens in the real world," Stiles said. "Why not start now?"

Andrews and Erten-Unal said the project will continue with a new crop of students in the fall, with adjustments made to the recommendations as necessary in an effort to get them implemented in Chesterfield Heights.

"And if we need to find other projects, we know there are other neighborhoods like this, especially in Hampton Roads," Erten-Unal said.

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