Resilient Design – Designing for Potential Disaster

In recent years since Hurricane Katrina and Sandy, resiliency has become a “buzz” word. Resiliency branches off from the “sustainability/green” movement and aligns with many aspects in the newest thought process with “regenerative” and living buildings. As we deal with issues of extreme weather, and changes to our climate, many are realizing that a key survival, is to design new buildings and landscapes with resiliency in mind. But what is resiliency and how can we incorporate it into our designs?

Resiliency – a quick search for a definition states: “Able to recover quickly from misfortune; able to return to original form after being bent, compressed, or stretched out of shape. A human ability to recover quickly from disruptive change, or misfortune without being overwhelmed or acting in dysfunctional or harmful ways.”

But what does resiliency mean for the green building industry? Some simple resilient strategies include putting HVAC systems on the roof of buildings instead of in the basements to address damage by potential flooding. Others strategies include wash out zones on the first floors of a building that are designed to have water flow through them during a major flood to reduce structural damage. Of course renewable energy is a no-brainer right? The Resilient Design Institute has a few more ideas:  These are important and smart design strategies, but do they really make the building fully resilient? In reality, there is much more than just the building that needs to  be resilient. Almost always, these buildings will have people inside when these catastrophes happen, so how can we design with them in mind as well?

Resilient design for people, means looking at several other factors beyond the structure of the building:

  1. Electricity
  2. Transport Place
  3. Food/Water access

The first step to keeping people alive during a disaster is electricity. If a building is designed with enough renewable energy to keep the basic systems running and power specific necessities, HVAC equipment can maintain internal temperatures at a comfortable level, life support systems can remain on in hospitals, elevators can remain moving and perishable items can remain cool in refrigerators and freezers. This will apply for the entirety of the systems, in a case during Hurricane Katrina, a hospitals mechanicals had been on the third floor to prevent issues during floods, however, some of the main electrical switches were in the basement. Once the flood waters reached the basement, those mechancials shorted out as their switches went under water. Going beyond the obvious and thinking outside the box is a necessary step towards creating truly resilient spaces.

Another step of resiliency is getting people to safety. Is there a place for a helicopter to land on the roof? Are there areas where boats or buses could easily pull up to get people out quickly? Is there a way to get people in hospital beds easily from their rooms to the roof or other place of transport? Thinking about how people will leave the building during a fire, flood or other event is an important aspect for the design team to consider. If electrical power can be maintained during the event, this may be as simple as putting people in an elevator and bringing them up or down, but it may be important to have static transportation systems that don’t rely on power, that still allow people to move easily throughout the building. Perhaps ramps can be used instead of stairs, or bed lifts can take patients to the roof.

The last main area to focus on with resiliency is food and water. In most cases, people may only be trapped in a building for a few days, but what if it was longer? Are there food and clean water sources that people can easily access? Designers may want to consider areas to store emergency meals, first aid, water and other useful tools.

Currently, many of these “potential” issues may seem too improbable for most designs to take into consideration, but what are the costs of rebuilding the entire building? Or losing the human lives during a weather event? It appears a new shift is taking place in order to address resiliency and will help us to create intelligent and more adaptable designs. Micro-grids and shared systems may also help to increase resiliency of communities. If neighborhoods share utilities, certain buildings may be able to power down, in order to let other buildings power up, to keep imperative systems running. Meeting places and temporary housing could be designed into communities so there is a safe place for people to gather and distribute food and water. Designing in contingency plans is an important aspect towards moving to true resiliency. A building or community’s contingency plan may vary based on the location and typical climate, though thinking about potential disasters ahead of time makes sense regardless. Climate change isn’t coming, it’s here and resilient design is now a more important than ever for smart design. My thought, is that designing for true “resiliency” should make the next catastrophe less of a disaster, and more of just an inconvenience.