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Preparing for Hurricanes with Resilient Design

Before Hurricane Sandy, ‘Resilient Design’ was a trending search term on Google of interest to select building professionals. Post-Sandy, things have changed: yes, the interest level in the general marketplace has grown considerably for Green Building, Sustainability, Eco-Friendly Development, and a variety of other related products and services… but low-VOC-adhesives, more efficient refrigerators, even alternative power generation systems don’t matter much if a building becomes uninhabitable due to natural or manmade disasters.

Post-Sandy, more and more professionals and consumers are interested in learning more about resiliency – what needs to be done, and even more so, what can or can’t be done?

Our buildings and communities must be able to survive these large-scale, disastrous events.The good news is, the things that need to be done, can be done.

What is “Resilience”?

2011 set a record for natural disasters in the United States, with more than $1 billion in damages. Many people view 2011 as a “first alert” of an increasing trend in global disasters. The impact of these disasters goes beyond the direct economic losses. There is a potential loss of business customers, market shares, and competitive edges – businesses may close after a disaster, which severely affects the employees and the community they support.

Traditional U.S. critical infrastructure protection policies focus primarily on physical protection and prevention. Infrastructure protection has developed a broader focus and the concept of resilience has become a prominent component of national, homeland, and infrastructure security policies. The inclusion of resilience now in federal policy indicates that the government accepts that not all assets can be protected from all threats always, and so resiliency must come into play.

But what does it mean for our buildings, our communities, to “be more Resilient”? The Resiliency Action List published by the Living Design Project covers several perspectives, everything from Community Preparedness to Building Design considerations. Here are a few to consider:

  • Planning, Design, Maintenance + Operations: Integrative Process, Stakeholder Involvement, etc.
  • Hazard Preparedness: Emergency Planning, Access to Services, Provisions + Shelter, etc.
  • Hazard Adaptation/Mitigation: Sites of Avoidance, Emergency Operations, Adaptive Design, etc.
  • Community Cohesion + Vitality: Alignment, Assessment, Collaboration, Preservation, etc.
  • Productivity, Health + Diversity: Interior Environments, Social Equity, Ecological Protection, etc.
  • Energy, Water + Food: Water + Energy Efficiency, Site Optimization, Net Zero, etc.
  • Materials + Artifacts: Life Cycle Plan, Embodied Energy, Durability/Adaptability/Flexibility, etc.

What Can Be Done?

The local environment plays a critical role in determining the factors that make a building resilient or not, so resilient design is geographically specific. For example, New York City has a wet climate, and water and weather are part of its environmental challenges throughout the year, whereas the West Coast must focus more on seismic and fire risk considerations. The first step is to consider all possible and likely disaster scenarios, as well as all sources of general everyday stress. Then you can start the design process with all of these considerations in mind. With our headquarters in Melbourne, Florida, and offices up the Southeast coast, we are particularly vulnerable to the harsh conditions that Hurricane Season brings.

Storms, Hurricanes, Flooding

In regions like ours, special attention needs to be paid in designing to resist severe wind load, as well as heavy precipitation and ground-level flooding. Buildings in hurricane prone areas need to be extremely well-sealed and have adequate drainage solutions for roofs, terraces, basements, and any other areas which may collect water. Flood barrier walls are obvious solutions to the threat of flooding on the ground level, as well as ensuring emergency backup generators aren’t placed in low-lying building areas.

Fire Resistance

Fires are a danger as old as architecture itself, and can be started by a myriad of things. During Hurricane Season, down power lines and lightning strikes are known to cause damaging fires. Most building codes adequately address common fire hazards, but in addition to urban fire hazards, wildfires are a growing threat in the United States. Steps that can be taken to protect commercial buildings against wildfire include fire-resistant landscaping, brush-clearing, and barrier zones in wildfire prone areas.

Infrastructure Failure & Power Outages

Extreme scenarios like Hurricane Sandy have taught designers a few things: always have a back-up power supply (and keep back-up power on a higher floor), maintain off-grid heating and cooling capabilities, make sure that building insulation is as tight as can be, make sure that natural ventilation is possible when air conditioning fails, and maximize daylight so that occupants can continue to see, work and move around without artificial light.

What Is Being Done?

Changing our building design and infrastructure is just the beginning. Two of the most useful activities to increase resilience is to 1) introduce the requirement into the planning process, and 2) expand the public conversation. Meaningful change can be achieved when the proper plan and training is in place, and that starts with a productive and transparent dialog to assess current vulnerabilities and plan for education and communication. So, what else is being done?

  • The Department of Homeland Security is developing a tool to set standards and help facility executives make the necessary tradeoffs. A beta version of the owner project requirements tool is available at Oprtool.org. When it is finished, it will cover options available to enhance safety, security, durability, and operations for both the building envelope and systems, while being energy-efficient, environmentally friendly and cost-effective.
  • 100 Resilient Cities is a non-profit pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation, dedicated to helping cities around the world become more resilient.
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been discussing a Resilience Star program, similar to Energy Star, which would award points or credits for various resilience features. It’s an attempt to establish performance that goes above code, using benchmarks for robust design.
  • Developments in building technology, used in conjunction with fire systems, may offer ways to improve resilience. Building Information Modeling (BIM) is one possibility. Aside from mapping features, if spec sheets and maintenance records for every part of a building are available with one click, that information can be shared in advance with firefighters and other emergency personnel to better prepare them in the event of an emergency.

At present, creating a Resilient building has little to do with building codes in most areas. Codes do an excellent job of saving lives because they focus on efficiently evacuating building occupants. However, they do relatively little to preserve the actual building, and property losses can be significant. Finally, beyond new public and private programs, there is a business case being made for resilience. With some building systems, steps that increase resilience reduce ongoing facility costs. For example, a building that uses less energy and water on a daily basis is also, in a passive way, ready to meet disaster more effectively.

Resilience allows us to reach beyond building and campus boundaries, engage the community and prepare us for what is ahead, even if it is unknown. It’s not the “next” sustainability, but rather a necessary companion to sustainability and ecological thinking.


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Posted In: Solutions, Sustainability, Thought Leaders
Tagged In: safety, sustainability, Hurricanes, design
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Architect David Hill is a Project Manager for BRPH. His professional experience spans a wide range of project types, consistently linked together with a focus on real world Sustainability and now Resilience.

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