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Photo: Courtesy of the Resilient Design Institute

The priorities for resilient design are pretty clear. First, buildings should be sited and designed to achieve a reasonable level of protection from expected disturbances and interruptions, including those from climate change; and second, buildings should retain a reasonable level of functionality and keep occupants safe should they lose power for an extended period of time. In general, we know a lot about how to achieve the former, but we have barely begun to think about the latter.

Loss of power is a common secondary impact of many—if not most—natural disasters. Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfire, earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, ice storms, heat waves, and drought can all result in power interruptions. Outages can also be expected with terrorist events, including cyber-terrorism, and can result from human error and equipment failures. One of the most important priorities of resilient design is to provide for “passive survivability,” which the Resilient Design Institute defines as ensuring that livable conditions will be maintained in a building that loses power.

A big part of designing a building to achieve passive survivability has to do with the building envelope. A highly insulated building envelope will maintain livable conditions inside far better than a poorly insulated envelope. Overall building design, including orientation, passive solar design, inclusion of thermal mass, cooling-load-avoidance measures, and natural ventilation are also key aspects of such design.

Emergency power plays an important role in passive survivability. Back-up generators, solar-electric systems with battery storage (or specialized inverters that allow utilization of solar power even during outages), and microgrids that serve a group of buildings can all serve this need.

Access to potable water can also be a challenge during an extended power outage. In buildings that aren’t served by municipal water, electric pumps are usually required to deliver water; in taller buildings served by municipal water systems, pumps are usually required to elevate that water to upper floors. Hand pumps and back-up power can serve these needs, respectively.

All of these aspects of resilient design are addressed in a new suite of LEED pilot credits on resilient design (credits 98, 99, and 100 in the LEED credit library). For projects going for LEED certification, this is a useful starting point.

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The Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital Photo: Anton Grassl

Wilson’s Resiliency Top 3:

1. The Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital: This was being planned when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, and some hospital patients there were unable to be evacuated due to the flood. In some situations, hospital staff had to use furniture to break windows in patient rooms because temperatures had risen as high as 110°F without air conditioning. Perkins + Will, the designer of Boston’s Spaulding Rehab, took that to heart and created what is probably the nation’s first modern hospital with operable windows in all patient rooms. The hospital is filled with other resilience features, including elevated mechanical equipment, a fully floodable first floor, and two back-up generators, either of which could operate the building on stored fuel for weeks.

2. The Brock Environmental Center of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (main image): This is a remarkable building. Designed to withstand hurricane-force winds and storm surges that will become increasingly common at this site on the Chesapeake Bay, it is so well insulated that the solar and wind systems provide more than 100% of its energy needs. It also uses only water that is collected onsite; this rainwater harvesting and treatment system will keep operating even if the municipal water system fails. The building is one of a handful nationwide that is certified by the Living Building Challenge.

3. Alain Hamel’s home in Northern Quebec: This homebuilder, who has been constructing LEED-certified homes in the Saguenay region for 7 years and was previously doing general construction in the Montreal region since 1985, may own the most resilient home in North America. It is only 100 feet from a lake but is 75 feet above the water level and boasts extraordinary insulation levels (R-80 walls and R-150 roof), solar-powered back-up electricity, a 3.3 kW gas generator, and a host of other resilience features.


Alex Wilson is President of the Resilient Design Institute. He is also the founder of BuildingGreen, a 15-person, Brattleboro, Vermont company that has been publishing information and consulting on green building practices since 1985.

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