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Dec 14 2013

Is Resilience the New Sustainability?

Ever since Hurricane Sandy wrought havoc on the East Coast, ‘resilient design’ has been a hot topic of conversation.

Ever since Hurricane Sandy wrought havoc on the East Coast, ‘resilient design’ has been a hot topic of conversation — and not just amongst architects and designers, but politicians, engineers and city planners as well. In November 2012, ‘Resilient Design’ was a trending search term in Google, moving from near obscurity in the months before the devastating super storm to a popular catchphrase post-Sandy. Natural disasters like this, and more recently the typhoon that hit the Philippines in early November, serve to remind those of us in the green design community that while building with pure “save-the-earth” ecological motivation is certainly important, low-VOC-paints and LEED points don’t matter much if a building becomes uninhabitable due to flooding, earthquake, power outages or some other natural or manmade disaster. That’s where resilient design comes into play. According to the Resilient Design Institute, resilient design is defined as “the intentional design of buildings, landscapes, communities, and regions in response to vulnerabilities to disaster and disruption of normal life.”

Any so-called “green” products and buildings that don’t stand the test of time are not truly sustainable.

Major disasters like Typhoon Haiyan, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and earthquakes in Japan, Pakistan and Haiti are a wakeup call to remind designers that we always need to keep the long-term picture in mind when we design, preparing buildings to withstand possible disasters as well as more mundane long-term wear and tear. While the term “sustainability” in today’s lexicon often conjures up an image of CFLs, Priuses and low carbon emissions, “sustainability” literally means “to endure”. Any so-called “green” products and buildings that don’t stand the test of time are not truly sustainable. As climate change turns our attention to the possibility of increasingly likely disaster scenarios, resilient design serves to remind us to design for durability over time.

So What Does ‘Resilient Design’ Entail When It Comes to Building?

To design a building with resiliency means to start the design process by thinking carefully about the typical use scenarios of the building, common points of stress due to normal use, as well as the most likely disaster situations in the environment that could challenge the integrity of the building and/or endanger its occupants. The local environment always plays a critical role in determining the factors that make a building resilient or not, and so resilient design is always locally specific.

For example, New York City has a wet climate, and water is a part of its environmental challenges throughout the year. In New York City, the most common and likely natural disaster scenarios involve water: hurricanes, flooding, storm surges, and blizzards. Resilient building in New York City needs to plan for all of these types of events, as well as the day-to-day stress that comes from significant precipitation year round, high-humidity, and the alternation of humidity (in the summer), with extremely dry interior air (in heated buildings in the winter). Of course, builders in New York City also need to design to withstand seismic activity, high heat loads in the summer, power outages, manmade disasters like terrorism, as well as the normal damage that comes with thousands of people moving through spaces in rapid succession.

On the West Coast of the United States, seismic considerations are obviously much more of a concern, as well as fire danger. Thinking through every potential problem and possible disaster situation can be overwhelming for designers, which is why a sensible approach starts by examining the most likely problem situations and pulling from local wisdom, knowledge and experience.

Resiliency in Commercial Building Design

Most of the talk about ‘resilient design’ these days is generally in the context of residential buildings and community infrastructure (such as how New York City can engineer to protect itself against the next major storm surge from a disaster like Hurricane Sandy). What is unfortunate is that in all the discussion surrounding resilient residential buildings and city-wide infrastructure, non-residential buildings are too often overlooked. Examples like Hurricane Sandy show us that more resilient structures are hugely important when it comes to health, safety, and comfort within a city. For example, if the Con Edison power plant that exploded on 14th Street in lower Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy had had higher flood barrier walls — and had generally been better designed to withstand flooding — all of lower Manhattan would not have lost power for the 4 days that followed Hurricane Sandy, leading to widespread evacuations, hospital evacuations, and public transportation failure.

Similarly NYU Langone Hospital and Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan’s Eastside would not have been so devastated, requiring the emergency evacuations of thousands of patients, had they also been better designed to withstand flood waters from a storm surge.

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