Natural Disasters Driving Push for 'Resilient Design' Engineering

Originally published by: Eco Building PulseOctober 20, 2014

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When Superstorm Sandy assaulted the East Coast in 2012, it elevated the topic of “resilient design.” Numerous commissions, reports, and design competitions have encouraged and equipped designers to integrate strategies that minimize damage and provide for short-term survival if disaster should strike.

While this focus on resilient design is critically important, I believe it needs to be a part of a broader understanding of how to effectively design for the future. Beyond focusing on single acute events, like hurricanes and tornadoes, we also need to address the chronic changes that are already underway because of climate change. I liken it to the difference between responding to a personal health emergency, such as a heart attack, and making proactive lifestyle changes to lower the risk of heart disease.

Let’s face it, we humans are most comfortable with the status quo. When destruction happens, our natural tendency is to rebuild things exactly as they were. So how do we develop a sense of urgency around the need to design for a different and uncertain future?

This is where the design profession can and should play an important role. We need to work as change agents to encourage a new approach to resilience, one that embraces the gradual changes already taking place while preparing for the sudden ones.

Chronic changes—including sea-level rise, an increase in flooding and drought, global warming, and more extreme weather events—require different types of design solutions than those focused on life safety and short-term survivability. The good news is that we can be inspired by the natural systems that have thrived through millennia of both abrupt and incremental changes. One important lesson is that resilience is always local—strategies need to be based on the unique circumstances of place. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report defines risk using three local factors—vulnerability, hazard, and exposure. By reducing all three, we can lower risk regardless of the conditions. Through new resources, such as the National Climate Assessment report and the Resilient Design Institute, to name a few, designers are increasingly equipped to better anticipate and respond to place-based changes.

Image from NOAA sea level mapping tool looking at socioeconomic vulnerability based on 4 foot rise.

Protect, Retreat, Embrace

What strategies can we use to lower risk through design? In a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ June 2014 report, the department defines some simple categories for different design approaches that apply to all of the built environment. The first approach is to protect—to strengthen our built environment and infrastructure to withstand conditions such as increased winds, sea-level rise, flooding, or fire. This is the strategy behind the new Fortified design standards developed and promoted by the insurance industry. The winning “The Big ‘U’ ” entry in the HUD Rebuild by Design competition for a new “Wall Street” is a good example of a protect solution with a 10-mile-long network of continuous flood control structures weaving around lower Manhattan.

A second approach is to retreat, to simply not build or rebuild in a particularly vulnerable location. This was the motivation behind the relocation of most of Grafton, Ill., following the 1993 Mississippi River flood in St. Louis. In the U.K., climate change adaptation planning promotes relocating dwellings away from the River Thames with its increased flooding and rising water levels. But this approach can be challenging to achieve in an existing community with deep emotional attachments to place, as experienced in the Lower 9th Ward after Hurricane Katrina. The importance of a strong community is vital to resilience, something that has been demonstrated repeatedly through heat waves, blackouts, and the attacks of September 11. The New Orleans–based 2014 AIA Architecture Firm Award recipient Eskew+Dumez+Ripple puts it eloquently: “Resilience without community is just survivalism.”

The third approach, and one that is particularly compelling, is to accommodate or embrace the changes that are taking place. With this methodology, we don’t see change as a problem, but as an opportunity that could lead to different solutions that benefit both natural and human systems. In Freiburg, Germany, Atelier Dreiseitl’s work includes ground-level public spaces that are designed for public use and community-building activities, yet built to accommodate, slow down, and absorb the increased water flow during major rain events when necessary. The William Jefferson Clinton Children’s Center in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, follows this approach, inspired by local natural systems and vernacular architecture.

Resilience requires a comprehensive-ecosystem approach to creating a strong, responsive whole. The City Resilience Framework developed by the 100 Resilient Cities initiative includes 12 resilience indicators encompassing four different systems: economic, social, governance, and built environment. Design professionals play an important role in all of these sectors by acting as facilitators, providing a compelling vision for a resilient future state, and designing strong, adaptive solutions. And the recent Risky Business Project report illuminates an important opportunity for design professionals to align with those in the business community who are already promoting the importance of adapting to our changing world.

So what actions do we need to implement by 2020? Here’s my wish list:

  • Requirements to address climate change are integrated into model codes, green building rating systems, and standards. The International Code Council should incorporate resilience into future versions of the International Green Construction Code (IgCC) for local adaptation.
  • Designers share resilient best practices, knowledge, and expertise. This can be led nationally through the AIA Foundation’s new Regional Resilient Design Studios and internationally through the International Union of Architects.
  • Academic and professional education programs provide a fundamental understanding of climate science and strategies to address acute and chronic resilient design. Accreditation and licensing requirements should include resilience criteria.
  • Tools for predictive design based on climate science are readily available from early design and planning through operations. These are integrated into modeling programs and curricula.
  • There are numerous built project examples that address chronic as well as acute changes.
  • Design awards include resilience as a key criteria for great design.


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