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Resilience Planning in Design and Construction

Roxanne Button is a Licensed Architect and Certified Specification Writer in New York State with 25 years of experience and a focus on environmentally sustainable design. In this article, Button discusses resiliency design, how it applies to buildings, and what designers and builders need to know about the future of resiliency planning.


What is resilience in design and construction?

If you Google the word “resilience,” the first thing to come up is a definition that talks about the ability to recover quickly, to bounce back, or to be tough. As you scroll down through the search results, most of the links are psychology-related with one or two about the financial resiliency of businesses. You have to dig further to find a reference to environmental resiliency or to the resilient design of buildings.

That first definition fits all of those very different contexts. Whether it refers to a human being, a community, or a company, resilience is the ability to recover from adversity, to return to some sense of normalcy aftershock or stress, or to adapt to a changed environment. With respect to buildings and communities, resiliency is also the act of maintaining livable conditions – through deteriorating or even devastating circumstances - at all levels and scales of development.  

Resilient design isn’t the same as sustainable design, but they have a lot in common. According to the Resilient Design Institute, it is “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….”

Resilient design is, in a lot of ways, an expansion of the definition of sustainable design. For architects and designers, it is another layer in the design process. For building owners, it’s an added cost, but at the same time, it is a necessary investment in their properties. Since Sandy, more owners and developers are recognizing the need for such investment.

While there is still debate and even dismissal of climate change and its known impacts around the world, people in coastal regions and flood-prone areas know what’s really happening because they are living it. They understand that it isn’t “a waste of money”, as one government official stated just last year to invest in better buildings and infrastructure. Fortunately, much of the initiative to pursue resilience is coming (literally and figuratively) from the ground up, involving local and state governments, philanthropic organizations, and the building industry itself.  


Lessons from Hurricane Sandy

After the devastation that swept over the coastlines of New Jersey and New York five years ago, New York State created the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery (GOSR) to support and fund rebuilding projects. It also started the Institute for Storms and Emergencies (NYS RISE) to bring together the research expertise of five universities with the DOE’s Brookhaven National Laboratory.

The GOSR tackles projects under four main programs:

  • Housing Recovery
  • Small Business
  • Community Reconstruction
  • Infrastructure.

NYS RISE approaches these issues from the research side by looking for ways to bring research into practice.

New York City created its own Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency, and opened an Office of Recovery and Resiliency. The highest-profile design proposal to come out of the resulting Hurricane Sandy Design Competition is The Big U (aka the “Dryline”), designed by a team led by Danish Architect Bjarke Ingels. At least six other large projects are in various stages of design and implementation in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. The Rockefeller Foundation is a big supporter of both the design competition and their own 100 Resilient Cities initiative that launched in 2013. Its goal is to promote resilience strategies through access to resources and a global network of experts, and to enable cities to hire CRO’s: Chief Resilience Officers.

In addition to – and often in partnership with – local and state governments, professional organizations in the building industry are also focusing more attention on resiliency. Although the American Institute of Architects (AIA) created its Disaster Assistance Program in 1972, long before the devastating natural disasters of the past decade, it has placed renewed emphasis on this program since Hurricane Sandy.  AIA advocates for the Architect’s role in resiliency planning and direct assistance to communities, through a network of experts who are available to help before, during, and after. The AIA’s Resilience and Adaptation Initiative boosts that on-the-ground level of assistance with expanded education resources and helps Architects to become more engaged in other resiliency-focused programs.  


What do Architects and Builders need to know?

Beyond the obvious ability to recover from a devastating event – from cleanup to repair or rebuilding - what does resiliency mean for design and construction?  

About two months before Sandy, Alex Wilson – founder of BuildingGreen Inc.– created the nonprofit Resilient Design Institute to promote resiliency as part of sustainable design. RDI also provides consulting services to communities and to the design and building industry. In his first blog post on the new website, “Fundamentals of Resilient Design #1: Making the Case”, Alex noted that many of the things that we already advocate for in green building mirror what we need to do to achieve more resiliency. Better insulated building envelopes, for example, will improve the ability to withstand periods of cold weather during a winter storm. Renewable energy sources, especially those that are site- or neighborhood-based, will reduce reliance on power plants that may fail during a storm event.

RDI has a list of recommended design strategies for making buildings and communities more resistant to damage. Third-party sustainability certification programs are also incorporating resiliency, which is an important step towards bringing it up to the same level of recognition and acceptance as sustainable design.

Building owners and developers in Manhattan who were hit hard in 2012 are being smarter about their new project. After the flooding seen during Sandy, not putting sensitive mechanical and electrical equipment in basements and sub-basements now seems like an obvious move, but it goes against conventional practice.

It helps that the City of New York quickly introduced new requirements into their zoning and building regulations for new buildings, such as requiring the ground level to be raised above the design flood elevation. Thicker – and heavier – concrete foundations help to anchor buildings and protect against hydrostatic pressure.  More watertight construction for foundations paired with temporary flood shields, baffles, and other types of flood barriers help reduce the infiltration of water into buildings.

For more resilient infrastructure projects, the Envision Sustainable Infrastructure Rating System provides guidance and support for both design professionals and projects. Developed by the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure, this program has 60 criteria that cover every aspect of sustainable design for infrastructure. It is modeled after the categories and credits of LEED, and provides an evaluation of completed projects as well as an accreditation program for professionals.

The U.S. Green Building Council introduced resiliency into its LEED Green Building Rating System in late 2015 with three new LEED Pilot Credits developed by the Resilient Design Institute. These credits focus on the design process and the integration of resiliency into the earliest phases of building planning and design.

At last year’s GreenBuild conference in Boston, USGBC announced that it had adopted the RELi Resilience Rating System. RELi was created in 2012 by a group led by the Institute for Market Transformation to Sustainability (MTS) and the Capital Markets Partnership, along with the design firm Perkins+Will. RELi is a stand-alone program that is now being refined by a USGBC Resilience Steering Committee for use under the LEED umbrella of rating systems. They have a credit catalog, much like LEED, that is focused on the specific issues related to resilient design, with almost 200 different metrics and indicators for projects at all scales of development from individual buildings to entire communities.


The future is resilient

For anyone who has lived through a tornado, hurricane, flood, or other natural disaster, the idea that your home or business should be built to be more resistant to damage is a no-brainer. Of course, we should do that. Why aren’t we already building that way? The same question was asked when we used to talk about sustainable design as an add-on service and not as standard practice.  

The key may be to make it mandatory through building codes, as New York City has done. Since codes represent the bare legal minimum standards for design and construction, then it seems reasonable to expect that incorporating both sustainability and resiliency into codes will make all new and renovated buildings that much better. That would set a baseline, as the International Green Construction Code (IgCC) and California’s CALGreen building standard have done.

Having that consistently-applied baseline is critical because of the unpredictability of the risks. We know what has already happened as a result of stronger storm cycles, but we don’t know what’s coming.  That was the starting point for a conference last December hosted by Bloomberg LIVE to talk about resiliency and the response to storms like Sandy. The clear message from speakers like Daniel Zarrilli, New York City’s Chief Resilience Officer, was about taking a broader view and working on the issues in more multidisciplinary ways. “If we could see more broadly across disciplines, we would be much better off”, said Janice Barnes, Global Resilience Director and a Principal with Perkins+Will. Resilient design must be collaborative, cross-disciplinary, and community-focused.


About the Author

Roxanne is the Principal & Owner of Design Synergies, a licensed Architect, and a dual-credentialed LEED-Accredited Professional with over 25 years of experience in architecture, interior design, and sustainability consulting in the US and Canada. Her expertise in LEED and green buildings includes design consulting, certification management, and the development of educational programs. Photo cred: KC Kratt, NY

Profile Photo of Roxanne Button