Climate change is part of our new reality, and extreme weather events are wreaking havoc on human lives, infrastructure and the economies where they strike. Recent record setting hurricanes, tornado outbreaks, wildfires, droughts and flooding bear this out. As architects and designers, we need to take a close look at how buildings can be designed to tolerate uncertain climate challenges while benefitting those who use the structures for work and living space. This growing field of thought is known as resilient design.
This approach is a natural progression in responsible architectural design. It’s a blend of LEED principles, sustainability and preparation for the inevitable impact of climatic and other disturbances. I’ll concede the big idea is a little bit pie in the sky, but in reality, it’s really about paying attention to inevitabilities. The Resilient Design Institute defines it more specifically as “the intentional design of buildings, landscapes, communities, and regions in order to respond to natural and manmade disasters and disturbances—as well as long-term changes resulting from climate change—including sea level rise, increased frequency of heat waves, and regional drought.”
This is not necessarily new thinking, and there are organizations and companies that readily promote the idea. Earthquake resistant buildings, for instance, are a result of resilient design to minimize damage and loss of life if a serious tremor strikes. Other examples include flood barrier walls, storm resistant louvers, and solar shading devices. But it’s a concept that’s still not well known or understood in the architecture and design community. I think it deserves to be in the spotlight given the undeniable evidence of changing global weather patterns.
The goal of resilient design is simply this: in the event of a climatic disaster, terrorism or unexpected, extended interruptions of utility services like power and water, we can rebound more quickly and easily with a building designed to handle those potential threats. It’s design that’s prepared to respond to our vulnerabilities when faced with unthinkable conditions.
Smart resilient design strategies are naturally dependent on the use of the structure, local conditions, and potential environmental threats. “One size fits all” resilient design is not practical. What works in California with its seismic issues would not work in the Midwest with its frequent tornadoes, nor on the East Coast where flooding is becoming a serious problem.
According to the Resilient Design Institute, strategies include building or renovating structures to withstand floodwaters, high winds, and wildfire. These structures would also rely on redundant electrical systems with back-up power capacity and passive heating and cooling systems should a loss of power or fuel occur. Natural lighting would be emphasized and windows could be opened if needed for ventilation.
Water conservation practices would be employed, with rainwater collected and stored for emergencies. The interior materials would not emit toxic fumes if burned, and if soaked by floodwaters, they could dry and still be usable. Sanitation options include composting toilets if the municipal wastewater system stops functioning. The list of possible resilient adaptations goes on and on.
Of course resilient design has to demonstrate its value against the additional cost of these measures. That might be difficult to justify for builders and property owners who are rooted in the here and now rather than in the “what ifs.” How can you really predicate the actual, local impact of unknown, future climatic events?
Yet architecture is all about juggling: budgets, code requirements and a timeline that’s often impacted by – you guessed it – weather. And resilient design needs to be included in those budgets so we can build and renovate structures to stand the test of time – and climate change. It’s a case of investing a little more now versus paying a tremendous amount down the road to rebuild and deal with unimaginable situations.
Consider the following: according to a 2008 report by the National Resources Defense Council, the economic impact from just hurricane damage, real estate losses, energy costs and water costs resulting from climate change is estimated at 1.8 percent of U.S. GDP, or roughly $1.9 trillion annually by 2100. That’s a sobering number and doesn’t include the potential loss of life resulting from buildings that can’t adequately protect their occupants.
Acceptance of resilient design will take time. We’re creatures of habit and resistance to change is the norm. Sustainability and adoption of LEED principles took a while to become embraced by architects and builders, but they soon saw the benefits of these efforts. It’s no different with resilient design. It’s a matter of proactively educating the community about the concept and changing mindsets – before external elements force us to retroactively think and design this way.