Resilient Facilities: Strong And Sustainable

In Utah, the Salt Lake City Public Safety Building achieved LEED Platinum certification while also designed for resilience (including a glass exterior designed to meet seismic and ballistic requirements). (Photo: Dana Sohm | Sohm Photografx, courtesy of GSBS Architects)

By Mike Hower
From the September/October 2015 Issue

Climate has long been integrated into building codes, standards, and practices, based on the assumption that the future would be similar to the past. But the climate, it is a changin’—Bob Dylan might say—as did a vast majority of the world’s climate scientists in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report. If left unaddressed, the 2013 report warned, climate change would increase the likelihood of “severe, pervasive, and irreversible damage to the environment and society.”

It’s already happening—the United States has faced 178 weather and climate disasters since 1980, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information, inflicting more than $1 trillion in total economic costs, along with incalculable human suffering.

Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy—two of the most recent and infamous extreme weather events to hit the U.S.—together cost in excess of $200 billion and claimed more than 2,000 lives. Other climate impacts, while less dramatic, are still destructive: California’s years-long drought, which scientists say has been exacerbated by climate change, is expected to cause more than $2 billion in economic damages.

As the planet warms, other forms of extreme weather, including heat waves, heavy downpours, and floods, are also expected to increase in frequency and intensity.

And all of these so-called “climate impacts” are having a profound negative impact on the built environment, which also happens to be one of the leading drivers of climate change.

Commercial and residential buildings are the country’s largest carbon culprits, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, accounting for 41% of total carbon emissions in 2014. Most of these emissions come from the combustion of fossil fuels to provide heating, cooling, and lighting, as well as powering appliances and electrical equipment.

Extreme weather can cost facility managers a hefty penny—Hurricane Sandy alone inflicted $33 billion in property damage. Property managers and building owners are waking up, having realized that factoring climate change mitigation and adaptation into new construction and renovation projects is no longer “nice to have,” but an operational imperative.

Unsustainable building practices have exacerbated the same extreme weather that demands increased building resilience. Fortunately, many of the same building strategies that counter climate change can also improve building resilience against climate impacts.

What Exactly Is Resilience?

Arriving at a precise definition of resilience can be tough because it means different things to different fields.

In New Orleans, this August 30, 2005 photo shows University Hospital after Hurricane Katrina had devastated the city. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A more general definition of resilience is “the capacity to adapt to changing conditions and to maintain or regain functionality and vitality in the face of stress or disturbance,” according to the Resilient Design Institute (RDI), an organization focused on creating more climate resilient buildings and communities. In other words: it is the capacity to “bounce back” after a disturbance or interruption.

Similarly, the 2012 seminal book “Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back” describes resilience as “the capacity of a system, enterprise, or a person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances.”

Data centers, universities, hospitals, and offices all have distinct core purposes. For facility managers looking to construct new or retrofit existing buildings capable of “bouncing back” from climate shocks, defining the facility’s core purpose is the first step.

Planning Resilience From The Start

Around two-thirds of organizations are actively combining sustainability measures along with resilience, according to a June 2015 survey by environmental and engineering firm Haley & Aldrich, with municipalities and universities among the most proactive. This includes measures such as on-site renewable energy and green roofs, which reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide redundancy during extreme events.

But not everyone is there yet—only half of the organizations surveyed have already developed, or are in the process of developing, plans to adapt existing or incorporate new infrastructure to protect their assets, the report said. None of the participants have a whole-system, organizational resilience program in place.

Many of these organizations are, at best, in the early planning stages—but this is also where the most opportunity for integrating resilience lies, says Karin Holland, senior sustainability specialist at Haley & Aldrich.

“If you start thinking about resilience and seeing how that can tie into sustainability from the beginning of the project, you have many more options than when the building is already constructed and you’re in the operation and maintenance phase,” Holland says. “You want to really take a step back and see what your key vulnerabilities are.”

Performing a high-level vulnerability assessment can help identify a building’s various risks and exposures, Holland says. If the building is located by a waterfront, for example, it will face different climate risks than a building or asset in an area impacted by high winds, tornadoes, or hurricanes.

Holland advises that, once these vulnerabilities are identified, facility managers should immediately start integrating these into their planning.

Incorporating sustainability and resilience into the early planning stages can also save money in the long run, Holland says. This helps secure stakeholder buy-in, whose lack of understanding was identified by the Haley & Aldrich survey as a major barrier to resilience planning.

With the facility’s core purpose and key climate vulnerabilities established, facility managers should go a step deeper by anticipating worst-case scenarios and how to counter them, says Brendan Owens, vice president of LEED Technical Development at the U.S. Green Building Council.

“It goes back to understanding what it is ‘success’ looks like,” Owens says. “If you’re building a healthcare facility, or a hospital, or a school, or a single family house, your level of acceptability in terms of resilience is going to be different.”

For Owens, the context of the building determines which sustainability or resilience strategies to employ, whether it is on-site renewable energy, battery backup systems, or powerless ventilation, among others. By prioritizing likely problems, facility managers can make sure they are making decisions that will improve building resilience, or at least avoid making it worse.

Being Green: Not Always Black And White

Materials play an important role when considering resiliency in buildings, but facility managers shouldn’t necessarily focus on “green” if resiliency is their goal, Owens says.

“It’s not so much about saying ‘this is green and this is not green.’ The conversation is much more about ‘what are the tradeoffs that I care about’ and ‘what are the tradeoffs I value’,” he says.

Cost certainly is one of those considerations, but the trick is optimizing for several different variables at the same time.

In most instances, there aren’t really limits to the material palette facility managers can use to accomplish resilience goals, Owens says. Depending on the resiliency challenges most likely to afflict the building, certain materials are better than others. In a hurricane prone region, for example, it’s better to build out of steel than wood.

But not all resilient materials necessarily are the most sustainable, Owens warns. Resilience is a function of the structural aspects of the building, which doesn’t always overlap with what is the most eco-friendly. In a hurricane-prone region, reinforcing a building with steel and cement may make it more resilient, but also will increase its carbon footprint.

It’s a game of give and take—but when looking at different materials, going with the lower carbon alternative means facility managers are taking steps that could reduce climate risks.

Owens, who oversees technical development and integration of rating systems such as LEED and PEER at USGBC, espouses taking a holistic life cycle approach to optimize a building’s sustainability and resiliency characteristics.

“It’s about understanding the life cycle of the material,” he says.

The best part about taking a life cycle approach is that it allows facility managers to determine which materials they don’t need to use—and the most sustainable decision one can make is to minimize the amount of materials used.

Paths To Energy Independence

Energy independence is one of the most important, if obvious, features of a resilient building. The less a facility relies on the grid, and the more backup power it has, the more resilient it’s going to be.

Increased renewable energy use and energy efficiency, for example, can reduce a building’s dependency on the electrical grid and reduce carbon emissions while also making it more resilient to power outages caused by extreme weather.

Facility managers can also preempt temperature-driven energy impacts through improved thermal properties of the building shell, according to the USGBC’s 2013 report, “Green Building and Climate Resilience.” This can be achieved by installing better insulation, constructing green roofs, designing for increased wind, and including oversized roof drainage.

Combined heat and power (CHP), or cogeneration, offers another solid strategy for simultaneously reducing energy costs, carbon emissions, and grid reliance. Most useful for facilities with large electricity and heating demands, such as universities, this provides reliable electricity, steam, hot water, and cooling with lower cost and emissions than grid supplied power and an on-site boiler.

Innovative technologies also play an important part in advancing building energy independence, says Gita Nandan, principal and architect at thread collective, a Brooklyn based architecture studio. Although many are on the brink of becoming mainstream, they can help prepare buildings now for future extreme weather events.

Bright Power’s Resilient Power Hub, Nandan cites as an example, is a building-based resilient power system that combines solar PV with gas-fired combined heat and power systems and a battery storage bank to generate and store power continuously. Another technology, called Solatube, is a daylighting system that uses advanced optics to maximize the use of natural daylight in buildings.

Resilience Lessons From Katrina

Nowhere was the vulnerability of buildings to power outages more apparent than during Hurricane Katrina, when hospitals experienced total system failure, says Robin Guenther, principal at architecture and design firm Perkins+Will.

When the levees broke in New Orleans, the subsequent flooding and power loss caused many hospitals to fail in fulfilling their core purpose: keeping patients alive.

At Memorial Medical Center, for example, staff had to decide whom to save when they realized the backup power would soon run out. Although hospital administrators had planned for hurricanes, flooding, loss of electricity, and evacuations, they weren’t prepared to face them all at once. Nobody had thought the worst-case scenario could actually happen.

Once HVAC systems failed, Memorial and hospitals throughout New Orleans were turned into sweltering saunas, with indoor temperatures exceeding those outside. Unable to open sealed windows, staff smashed them with chairs to try to keep patients from succumbing to the heat.

Rampant flooding during Hurricane Katrina also showed the danger of putting critical electrical and plumbing systems below flood level, Guenther points out. Flooding caused sewage to backflow throughout entire hospitals, cutting off potable water supplies.

A more resilient strategy, she says, is to isolate the plumbing on the ground floor so that, if plumbing fails on the ground floor, it doesn’t affect the floors above.

Too Much, Or Little Water

In regions prone to storm surges and flooding, it’s best to apply an “upside down pyramid” design, according to Guenther, where important electrical and plumbing infrastructure are higher in the space or, better yet, on the roof rather than in the basement.

In coastal areas such as New York, many hospitals are moving their emergency rooms up one floor to protect against storm surges. Building with concrete block and plaster, along with porcelain floors, allows water to come in and out and dry quickly. Some buildings now employ metal stud and drywall with joints at three feet, which means that if the “sacrificial drywall” gets wet, workers can come in after the waters subside to cut out and replace it easily.

Sensor technology is also being employed in many buildings in flood prone areas to control valves in storm and plumbing systems to prevent critical utility systems from inundation.

But one of the best ways to protect a building from flooding, Guenther says, is preventing the water from entering in the first place. Nature has developed its own strategies for keeping flooding in check, but traditional buildings often erode the capacity of natural systems to do their jobs during flood events.

Guenther worked with the Texas Medical Center to help facility managers think more about ecosystem capacity—they ripped up the service parking lot and put in permeable paving, green spaces, and bioswale buffers.

Conversely, in drought prone regions such as California, facilities are facing increasing water scarcity. To help deal with this, recycled water systems are slowly coming online in cities around the state, which Guenther said buildings should be prepared to avail themselves of by separating plumbing of toilets from potable water.

The most drought resilient buildings are designed to retain and make more efficient use of as much water as possible, Guenther says. Many now employ cisterns to capture and store water to use for irrigation during the summer months.

Others are moving away from water intensive evaporative cooling systems. A hospital in San Antonio, for example, uses the city’s reclaimed water system for its cooling tower, reducing reliance on the potable water supply.

Responding To The New “Normal”

In this new era of climate impacts, facility managers should expect worst-case scenarios to be commonplace. Waiting until disaster strikes to react can be more difficult and expensive than being proactive.

Plan early, assess the building’s risks, and take a comprehensive approach to making materials, energy, and other resiliency decisions. Building and operating facilities that are both sustainable and resilient to extreme weather is part of the new “normal”, and those facility managers willing to adapt have everything to gain.

Because the climate, it is a changin’, and so must we.

resilient-facilities-green-strategiesHower is a sustainable business journalist and communication strategist, as well as principal of ClimaTalk Communications (, which strives to inform, inspire, and empower organizations to embrace more sustainable and resilient business practices.

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