2012's Hurricane Sandy devastated homes along the New Jersey shore.
2012's Hurricane Sandy devastated homes along the New Jersey shore.

Green building advocates have long been concerned about the built environment’s impact on nature. Now, some of the industry’s top thought leaders are raising an alarm about the ways that nature is impacting the built environment.

At the BUILDER Sustainability Summit held yesterday on the eve of this year’s Greenbuild conference in Washington, D.C., green building expert Alex Wilson linked global warming to many of the disasters that have recently struck communities across the world. Threats from events like hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, and droughts can unite Americans on environmental issues in a way that global warming hasn’t, he said.

“The concept of resilience can reach across those political divides,” Wilson told the audience. “Even if someone doesn’t believe in the science behind what’s causing events like stormy weather, flooding, and wildfires, those people still want to keep their families safe.”

Build Better

Resilient design techniques don’t have to be expensive, says architect Alex Wilson. Here are some top ways builders can construct a home that is prepared for a disaster and its aftermath:

--Consider timber framing and hurricane strapping for homes in storm-prone areas.

--Make sure that a home can maintain livable conditions in winter if power is lost by employing passive solar design and effective insulation strategies.

--Reduce a building’s reliance on mechanical cooling as much as possible. Alternatives include orienting homes on an east/west axis, limiting glazing, and employing awnings, overhangs, reflective roofs, and natural ventilation via operable windows. “After Katrina hit, older buildings tended to be more comfortable during the power outage,” he said. “Newer buildings became uninhabitable without air conditioning.”

--Consider solar power but make sure the system has a battery backup. Most grid-connected systems don’t work during power outages.

--In low-lying areas, install flood barriers along doorways.

--Plan developments that are compact and walkable for community resilience. “Many strategies that the green building movement has long advanced for communities, such as greater density, pedestrian friendly site planning, bike paths, and live/work units all make sense from a resilience standpoint, too,” he says.

Wilson, winner of the 2010 Hanley Award, founded the Resilient Design Institute four years ago to focus on the importance of safe and durable homes, buildings, and communities. Citing recent disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, flooding in Texas, and California’s drought, Wilson and pioneering architect Bob Berkebile called for better preparation during the Sustainability Summit.

For instance, residents of Greensburg, Kan., worked to rebuild their town with high-performance homes, hospitals, and offices after it was destroyed by an EF-5 tornado in 2007. In the wake of the catastrophe, Greensburg’s leaders and many residents embraced the idea of rebuilding as a green community.

Berkebile, winner of last year's Hanley Award, said community leaders should be thinking about resiliency before a catastrophe takes place.

“The larger question for us is how do we have the same conversation in our communities before a disaster occurs?” Berkebile asked. A new report ranks each state in the U.S. for its disaster preparedness.

At Wilson’s urging, resilient design principles are finding their way into the LEED certification program. Outlined at Greenbuild today, the USGBC approved three LEED pilot credits for resilient design to ensure that a project team addresses the risks. Designers would receive LEED credit if they perform a climate change assessment, design for hazards, or build back-up survivability systems to withstand power outages, water shortages, or the loss of heating fuel.

Alex Wilson
Alex Wilson

“In a nutshell, these three credits are designed to ensure that a design team is aware of vulnerabilities and addresses the most significant risks in the project design, including functionality of the building in the event of long-term interruptions in power or heating fuel,” he said.

Berkebile said many in the building industry often avoid discussing the effects of climate change for fear of alienating clients or customers. “But this is the moment when we are surrounded by enough evidence that we have been playing Russian roulette with this planet,” he said. “What I’d like for us to think about as we move on to Greenbuild is how do we create designs and environments and systems that create more insurgence, create more disruption, and accelerate the pace of change?”