Briar Goldwyn is a fourth-year PhD student researching multi-hazard housing safety and disaster risk reduction in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering and the Construction and Engineering Management program at CU Boulder.
She recently returned from fieldwork in Puerto Rico and has been active there for years through projects that center on the needs, concerns, and real-world challenges of Puerto Rican builders and homeowners.
Goldwyn’s latest project with the National Science Foundation focuses on informal housing construction in Puerto Rico, in which owners and builders are either unable or unwilling to enter formal construction processes. Her latest project focuses on how those dynamics impact the island during disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes. This project brings together collaborators from across campus, including professors Amy Javernick-Will and Abbie Liel in Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering and Matthew Koschmann in Communication. In addition, Goldwyn has had multiple Puerto Rican students, and organizations, assisting with the project.
Most of the previous work in this area has been done from a post-disaster reconnaissance perspective, which shows damage and reveals structural vulnerabilities. Goldwyn is instead trying to investigate the perspectives of those constructing and occupying these homes to better understand their perceptions of housing safety and disaster risk ahead of time.
We asked her about the real-world applications of her research, why she is passionate about it and where the work may go in the future.
Question: What is the project you were recently working on in Puerto Rico and how did you get involved with it?
Answer: Since the start of my PhD, I have been focused on understanding the housing safety perceptions of those involved in construction across Puerto Rico and how those perceptions do and do not align with actual engineering assessments of housing safety in hurricanes and earthquakes. For this project, I interviewed and surveyed over 400 builders, homeowners, hardware store employees, and non-governmental organization staff to understand their perceptions of the housing design and construction practices that are unsafe in future hazards – and the reasons that lead to these unsafe practices. Then, I worked with structural engineering colleagues to compare those perceptions with current wind and seismic engineering assessments to identify misalignments between the two. We took the resulting information and are now working with local experts to identify a few areas for technical construction capacity-building in response to what we found.
Q: Can you explain what you mean by technical construction capacity-building?
A: One way we are trying to support technical construction capacity-building in the project is by piloting a short educational module for 20 people in existing construction training programs specifically around hurricane mitigation for wood housing. The feedback from that program was positive, and now there are several more practical steps that I plan to take this summer to be able to support more community-based and grassroots organizations working in this space to build skills and awareness – or put another way, capacity.
Q: Did you work with any groups on the island for this project?
A: Yes, I piloted that technical construction capacity-building approach alongside two locally based organizations in Puerto Rico. We trained the organizations on methods of choosing and installing hurricane straps to avoid catastrophic and costly structural failures. Additionally, Cole Velasquez, an undergraduate student, has been helping me with this project for the past year through the Discovery Learning Apprenticeship program in the College of Engineering and Applied Science.
Q: Was this a research question or area you were interested in before joining the project?
A: I always knew that I wanted to work on ensuring that infrastructure is safe and equitable, especially in regions prone to natural hazards. As I was applying to this PhD program in fall 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria were devastating Puerto Rico, and I ended up writing my application about studying the impacts of different forms of housing aid after the hurricanes. But when I arrived in Puerto Rico in June 2019 for my first fieldwork trip, I realized that research topic would not be viable because of the realities of limited international aid and inaccessible federal aid. That summer, so many amazing people welcomed me into their homes and talked to me about their experiences with the hurricanes, their worries about their housing safety, and the policies that tied everything together. All of which inform and intersect with my research today.
I also just finished an internship funded by the National Science Foundation with InterAction, which is a convening organization for non-governmental organizations working towards global change. With them, I researched coverage of humanitarian shelter and settlements assistance, and it was a great experience because I got to be looped into big-picture conversations on advocacy and change within humanitarian aid and development.
Q: Where will the research go from here?
A: Puerto Rico's infrastructure is an incredibly challenging topic that is wrapped up in its colonial history. School infrastructure, for example, is a major concern there because – despite this critical public infrastructure being constructed formally – most of it is still vulnerable to the impacts of earthquakes and hurricanes. One school in Guánica, Puerto Rico, was destroyed in the 2019-20 earthquakes, and many other schools still possess the same structural vulnerabilities that led to that particular collapse. Moreover, Puerto Rico's housing stock is aging and in need of repair and reconstruction to be able to withstand future shocks and stresses from hazards. Many individuals I have spoken with have been really concerned with the lack of construction labor trained to build housing that is safe during hurricanes and earthquakes.
So there are many aspects that could be studied, and I think future work should start with discussions with local groups to understand their infrastructure-related research priorities and then work with them to design a project to address those topics.