After participating recently in the King County Sustainable Cities Roundtable to discuss “Beyond Net Zero: Resilience, Regeneration, and Social Justice" Alex Wilson agreed to an interview for the Building Capacity Blog. Alex is a long time advocate and leader in the sustainable building movement, going back to the late 70s, when he worked as a solar advocate in New Mexico, then in New England when he was the Executive Director for NESEA (Northeast Sustainable Energy Association), and again when he founded his own company in 1985, BuildingGreen. BuildingGreen has accomplished many things, but is probably most well known for being the publisher of Environmental Building News, which this writer believes is one of the most authoritative publications out there on the subject.
After many years of being at the helm of BuildingGreen, you've chosen a new focus for your energy: the Resilient Design Institute (RDI). Why this and Why Now? I feel like I've accomplished a great deal. At the same time, when I hear what climate scientists are telling us about the risks we're facing, I don't believe we're making rapid enough progress. I'm not really advocating different design strategies; for the most part Resilient Design includes the same kinds of things we've been focusing on with sustainable building. What I am advocating is a different rationale for doing these things: life safety.
So you're chucking the "it's the right thing to do" rationale? Not totally; it is still the right thing to do, and for some in our community, that has provided sufficient motivation. But it's clear that not enough of us are motivated by that.
Isn't that selfish? It definitely puts in a self-interest framework. I'm okay with that as long as what we're doing is creating something that's better for everyone.
You mention the lack of rapid enough progress, and imply that climate change is a primary source of your concern. In addition to "moving" people who haven't been moved before, what do you think this new focus on resilience in the built environment offers? We've been working on mitigating climate change for many years, for example advocating energy efficiency building strategies that reduce carbon emissions. But being realistic about the progress we've made, even in the best case scenario, CO2 levels are going to continue rising; we’ll see a warming trend, lots of impacts due to climate change. Resilience brings in the concept of adaptation.
What is RDI's first project, and how is it going? We’re ramping up. We've organized a great team, including an advisory board of some of the leading thinkers in our field. One of our first tasks is to seek funding for our work, which is fourfold:
2) To provide a think tank to host gatherings of key thinkers and strategists that focus on various aspects of resilience. For example, we're hoping to convene members of the insurance industry, which has an obvious and direct interest in buildings and communities that are more resilient, especially in the face of catastrophic events; or members of the utility industry to discuss "islanding" to enable decoupling in the event of a disaster; or members of the energy modeling software community to discuss the role that such software could play in predicting drift temperatures of buildings without heat or air conditioning. (Editor: Photo shows a simple exterior hurricane shutter on a house in Florida that not only protects the window during storms, but also provides shade--which will be particularly important during power outages. Credit: Alex Wilson)
3) To advocate the integration of resilience goals into green building policies and practices, both in the course of normal construction and remodel, and in the massive rebuild (and often underutilized) opportunities that occur in the case of a disaster such as Katrina. For example, we have begun conversations with the US Green Building Council regarding LEED pilot credits addressing resilient design. We're also looking at how resilience might be reflected in the International Green Construction Code.
4) To develop a resilient community assessment methodology, and eventually use the results of those assessments to inform recommendations for the development of public policy. I'm talking today to folks in Brattleboro about the possibility of using the Town as a case study for this aspect of our work. We want to learn how to assess the vulnerability of primarily smaller towns, highlighting their resilient features, and identifying areas for improvement. We'll look at the community as a whole, but also key buildings in an emergency. For example, the hospital that is intended to provide shelter in a crisis: does it have operable windows to allow for ventilation during an extended power outage when fuel for the generator might be depleted? Many new hospitals have inoperable windows.
Are there any ways where sustainable building and resilience conflict? I think there are aspects of green building that at some level may be in opposition to resilience. For example, redundancy is an important aspect of resilience, while efficiency is more in line with green building. This is fine; we'll need to rethink some strategies. But in most cases, the sustainability and resilience are synergistic and work well together.
Does it really matter what we call it? Terminology is important. After Hurricane Katrina I spent five years promoting "passive survivability" in articles and talks. Unfortunately the term conjured up a bunker mentality and didn't get the traction I'd hoped for. Resilience has a much more positive feel to it. I did note though that after Hurricane Sandy, the topic of "passive survivability" received significant attention in stakeholder conversations hosted in New York City by the Urban Green. Perhaps the more serious term makes sense once you've been throttled by a storm, and seriously considering how to survive another disaster.
Much of resilience research and application has been focused on the ability of humans to bounce back in surprising or traumatic circumstances. How do you see this applying to buildings? A resilient building is one where you can throw anything at it, and it does okay. Cut off power, heating fuel, throw wind and rain at it, flood it -- a resilient building will hang in there.
It has grit. Exactly. Buildings in general are about providing us with shelter. A resilient building will actually do that even after an event.
Is it possible for a single building to be resilient? Or does it require a certain scale for the resilience concept to be applicable -- for example a neighborhood? You raise an important point. Focusing on the building itself is important; there are a lot of aspects in building design that contribute to resilience, especially in the case of residences and public buildings that serve as emergency shelters. But an equally important contributor to a building's resilience is actually its transportation energy dependence -- which broadens the conversation to location. Looking at the community scale is very important; that's why we're hoping to develop the community assessment methodology I mentioned previously.
Nonetheless, what are some examples of resilient building features in residences? Specific features will be different depending on whether the building is a single family detached or high-rise. But generally, you want to optimize your energy efficiency to maintain reasonably comfortable temperatures even without fuel and/or electricity. In rural areas, one of the biggest challenges is the inability to pump water out of your well if your power goes out. This is where redundancy comes into play. Including a submersible hand pump that can be attached to a food-rated hose or fill buckets in the same well as your electric pump will provide water through a crisis. There are versions now that include features that prevent freezing, so the pump will work in the winter months. (Editor: Photo shows a hand pump made in Maine by Bison Pumps. This pump fits into a standard drilled well and the above-ground portion replaces the sanitary cap on the well casing. The unit can pump from a static head of up to 200 feet. Credit: Alex Wilson.)
Capturing and storing rainwater is another resilient strategy. PV also offers opportunities. The issue right now is that 95% of PV systems out there are grid-tied and will not function with the grid down. There are now inverters that allow use of PV-generated electricity during the day even during power outages. With minimal battery back-up to establish the proper waveform, such systems can be used during the day to re-charge the fridge, pump water, and so forth.
There are also design strategies that are aimed at addressing specific disasters. For example, the Miami Dade Building Code includes "storm design" adaptive strategies to provide better safety in hurricanes and major storms. These should be adopted throughout the eastern U.S. And in areas subject to wildfire (which will likely become more prevalent due to climate-change induced drought) Firewise Construction Practices should be adopted. I think the most common cause of homes burning down in wildfires are from embers blowing through the soffit vents into the attic, so incorporating ember-excluding soffit vents makes sense. In many cases the strategies can be implemented immediately, are pretty intuitive, and very affordable. But not always; super-insulating the nation's housing is far from trivial.
Schools are used a lot as emergency shelter. Any guidance on making schools resilient? For schools an important consideration is daylighting, which will reduce the energy requirements considerably, and reduce the wear and tear on emergency generators during power outages. Within 48 hours of Hurricane Sandy, most generators were no longer working; they were not designed for continuous use or they simply ran out of fuel and no more was available. (Which leads to another needed innovation -- better, more efficient generators.) (Editor: Photo shows a flood barrrier at the New England Youth Theater. These were deployed when Hurricane Irene came through and prevented hundreds of dollars of damage. While the building was above the 100-year flood elevation, flood water came up to within an inch-and-a-half of the top. Credit: Jerry Stockman.)
Can you differentiate an adaptive design from a resilient design? We tend to use the terms synonymously. Adaptive design recognizes long term trends that could impact life safety in the future. For example we should assume higher summer design temperatures. For buildings that are not currently in the flood areas but close by, designers should consider the potential for sea level rise. Culverts should be able to handle bigger storms. In Vermont, culverts that were rapidly overwhelmed in Hurricane Irene in 2011 have been replaced with double or triple the capacity.
Do you have any suggestions you'd like to give our readers? Three things: First, with any home addition, renovation, or window replacement project, look for opportunities to improve the building's energy performance. It will make your home, or the homes of your clients safer now and in the future—and it will save money and improve comfort. Second, get involved right away with planning boards to try to influence policies—for example, transportation policies to reduce reliance on the automobile. Pedestrian and bike friendly options are not "just" an amenity, nor just a mitigation measure to reduce carbon emissions, but can now be justified as a smart way to maintain mobility in the event of fuel shortages or outages. Third, RDI would love to hear from you. What ideas do you have to improve resilience at the building and community scale? Please let us know. (Editor: you can email Alex at the Institute's Website)
Kathleen O'Brien is Editor of Building Capacity Blog, and contributes monthly to the Daily Journal of Commerce's Green Building Blog. She has been in the sustainable development field for nearly three decades. She provides consulting on special projects for O'Brien & Company, the firm she founded over 20 years ago, and provides leadership training and mentoring through her legacy project: The Emerge Leadership Project. Her book The Northwest Green Home Primer, is popular with both professionals and the public. Kathleen also had the pleasure of working with Alex at NESEA in the mid-1980s, when solar panels were being taken OFF the white house roof, and the term "green building" had not yet been chris tened. Photo credits: Alex Wilson