Seamen’s Church Institute’s 200-Year Plan

“They thought of this place as a big boat.”

That’s what Michelle Duga, superintendent of Seamen’s Church Institute on Newport’s historic waterfront, says is behind the architectural choices that have helped protect the century-old brick building from the worst of flooding—first from storms, and now from rising sea level. “If you think about it, this place was built for and by mariners—they’re always thinking first and foremost about how to stay above the water.” 

How to stay above water is increasingly on the minds of those who live or work along the Newport waterfront. The R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council, the URI Coastal Resources Center, and Rhode Island Sea Grant are providing technical assistance to Newport to prepare for climate change. 

The Institute, which is participating in this project, exemplifies practical and protective adaptations that could apply to the Newport business community. 

“When this place first started out, as a haven for mariners, it was built with the thinking that we’re here for the long haul … it’s our mission. So yes, we’re part of the business community, but we’re the type of place that has, not a 50-year plan, but a 200-year plan. That’s not a common model,” Duga says. 

The Institute, which can lodge, feed, and answer the needs of dozens or more sailors or community members at a time, has implemented a series of flood-smart tactics that include a water-shunting, sloped basement floor; simple, yet effective, drainage; and an effort to move equipment that heats the building and operates its water systems to an upper floor. 

“When you live on the sea, you know that change happens – it’s just part of life,” Duga says. “Mariners think of themselves in terms of the water, so adapting to nature, to the water, is just what’s always been done here … The one thing I would tell everyone is that you’re going to have to adapt to the environment, and you’re going to need a plan for that. It’s totally doable, but you have to plan.” 

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Upcoming Event: 2014 Baird Sea Grant Science Symposium  

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“Staying afloat: Adapting waterfront businesses to rising seas and extreme storms”
December 10
Newport, R.I.

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