Lindsey Piant Perez

This does not mean that we should sit back and accept climate change. We must continue to dramatically reduce carbon emissions. But we could and should do something concurrently to address the increase in natural disasters.

Enter resilient design: “the intentional design of buildings, landscapes, communities, and regions in response to [natural disaster] vulnerabilities,” according to the Resilient Design Institute (RDI). After all, the most energy-efficient city block in the world loses all positive impact when vulnerabilities reduce it to be uninhabitable in the wake of a natural disaster.

In simple terms, resilient design strategies start with three principles:

  1. Protect: For any location, confirm the likeliest natural threats (such as higher winds, potential floods, earthquakes or fire), then upgrade facilities and infrastructures to better withstand them.
  2. Retreat: remove ourselves from areas of threat. For example, is there a prime view location on a slope targeted as a candidate for mudslides? Don’t build there.
  3. Embrace: accept the climate changes we’re seeing as core criteria in design, and create facilities that respond to certain disaster conditions. If a “protect” approach is about barriers to disaster conditions, the “embrace” approach is about finding ways to work alongside or with those conditions.

One question from people I’ve spoken with about resilient design is: aren’t we doing this already? Yes, we can say that our profession relies on code to guide us in building the safest possible facilities, but frankly code doesn’t always go far enough to address the needs of true resiliency capable of addressing new and changing environmental conditions. I think everyone involved in AEC work (owners, designers, contractors, etc.) should be asking this on every project: are we achieving resiliency?

Resilient design needs can seem huge, but there are strategies that are achievable. If those of us in the AEC professions shift our thinking to be disciplined in considering resiliency (not just code) before modeling a single design line, then we can have a positive impact right now. In considering recent work completed by my firm, I can see this:

  1. Protect: We applied the concept of “protect” in design of an addition to Baldwin Performing Arts Center (Baldwin City, Kansas). The project scope was simply an addition to address the growing need for a theater space for Baldwin’s junior high and high school performing arts programs. Because of the threat of tornadoes in that area, we encouraged discussion of providing shelter protection within schools. While doing so wasn’t a part of the original scope of work, this conversation as well as taking advantage of the availability of FEMA funding options led to design of a Performing Arts Center that’s further structured to protect students, staff and community visitors during tornados.
  2. Retreat: While it’s highly unlikely that moving an entire community out of areas of potential threat will be feasible, you can still bring “retreat” considerations to design and construction at a more achievable scale. For example, during the design of Joplin’s Replacement High School, our team closely looked at the site and identified flood plain areas. Once that was identified, we were able to create a site plan that works around the flood plain rather than through it.
  3. Embrace: We often assist our school clients with passing bond referendums in order to address the facility needs of the district. As our school bond experts assist in consensus building in “Tornado Alley,” for example, we spend a great deal of time educating school boards and their constituents about the benefit of having shelters within each of the facilities being addressed within the bond referendum. Although these additions might increase the scope of a bond, communities empowered to have this conversations can make confident decisions on what’s the right thing to do.

This may seem a daunting task, perhaps even scary. After all, how many of us like to consider the natural disasters that could happen where we live, work or play? It’s much more reassuring to assume that while possible, a disaster-level event is unlikely. But if recent trends continue, likelihood of major events may increase. And I hope that the aforementioned examples help demonstrate that we don’t have to wait to begin getting serious about resilient design. So now I’d ask you this question: how is resilient design being addressed on your next project?

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