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The Case for Resilience

Scott  Alan

It’s been an extraordinary few months with powerful hurricanes, deadly conflagrations and devastating earthquakes. High winds, heavy rains, wildfires and seismic activity are all naturally occurring hazards that are understood and addressed in codes. Despite this, these recent events were exceptionally deadly, costly and disruptive, and the road to recovery is slow.

The reinsurance industry (insurance for insurers) has noted an uptick in the frequency and severity of extreme weather, with a 10 percent increase in billion-dollar loss events over the last decade. In the face of this trend, planning and design standards must catch up with the risk of hazard events to homeowners, businesses and communities. The synergies of sustainability and resiliency in hazard preparedness support the triple-bottom-line of people, planet and prosperity, both in good times and when hazards strike.

Rebuild Resilient

Jay Raskin, FAIA, of Salus Resilience, an Oregon-based resilience planning firm, shared with me that a disaster is a hazard that one was not prepared for. While some of these recent hazards were truly unprecedented, experts have pointed to poor planning and lack of regulations as exacerbating factors during and after these hazards. For example, sprawling growth in Houston did not cause the flooding from Hurricane Harvey’s record-breaking rainfall, but it certainly contributed to magnified consequences. Similarly, development encroaching on the wildland interface, has increased the property damage and lethality of naturally occurring wildfires. 

Disaster-impacted regions must be rebuilt with resilience in mind, and communities at risk of hazards should take lessons from recent events and plan ahead. When Houston, Santa Rosa, Calif., and other communities are reconstructed, will they avoid building in hazard-prone areas? Will they adopt higher standards to mitigate damage from future events?

Hurricane Maria wiped out Puerto Rico’s power grid, taking months and billions of dollars to restore electricity. However, solar farms on hurricane-ravaged Caribbean islands fared well and were ready to produce power after the storm, without the fuel supply issues of diesel and gas-fired plants. This is evidence that decentralized renewable power should be the new model.

Code is not Enough

When it comes to individual buildings, many people assume that complying with codes is the best practice to protect structures from known hazard risks (allowing continued use), when, in actuality, it is the minimum standard for occupant safety and emergency egress during and after a hazard event. Even a building that meets all current codes is likely to be severely damaged and uninhabitable after a hazard event, requiring costly repair or replacement.

Rather than rely on code, prudent building owners, along with their design teams, should conduct their own calculated risk assessment and define the building’s level of ability to withstand potential hazards. Structures and enclosure systems can be designed and constructed to go beyond code to protect property to a higher level, allowing the building to serve as a shelter during recovery and to support continuity of business afterward (or occupancy in the case of a residential building).

The Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) runs a research center in Richburg, S.C. The IBHS has been studying effective ways to increase the resilience of homes and businesses in the face of natural hazards. This research has led to the development of the FORTIFIED for Safer Business program, which establishes enhanced standards for resistance to high winds, hurricanes, floods, wildfires, freezing weather, hail and earthquakes. The standard maps out the primary risks in each U.S. region, and provides specific requirements and recommendations to mitigate risks. For example:

  • Wildfire – Structures in the wildland urban interface should adopt measures to prevent the entry of embers and reduced direct flame and radiant heat exposure. FORTIFIED specifies ignition resistance of building materials, such as Class A fire ratings for roofs, and includes defensible space requirements for landscaping.
  • Hurricane – The standard specifies impact resistance requirements for glazed openings, water intrusion requirements for windows, doors and skylights, and high-wind roofing design standards.
  • Flood – Requirements include foundation design parameters, and a minimum finished floor height above base flood elevation.
  • Earthquake - FORTIFIED recommends structural design using a 20 percent increase in mapped spectral response acceleration parameters, and includes design requirements for glass (tempered or safety film), utility connections, and the anchorage of architectural, mechanical and electrical elements.

This prudent approach does not need to be a budget buster. The Beaverton School District (BSD) recently opened Timberland Middle School in Portland, Ore., in accordance with the BSD Resilience Plan. The common areas (cafeteria, gymnasium, etc.) were designed to a higher seismic standard to allow occupancy after a major earthquake. An emergency generator with increased fuel storage coupled with a large solar array will provide standby power for extended off-grid operation. The resilience enhancements added less than 1 percent to the budget, yet will make the school safer for students and a valuable community resource in the event of an earthquake.

Looking Forward

One of the most prominent lessons from recent events is that past precedent is not sufficient to predict future hazards. According to C40 Cities, 70 percent of U.S. cities are currently facing the effects of climate change, and the risks are expected to increase. At the same time, much of our building stock is aging, and our infrastructure is crumbling (earning a grade of D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers). As we make public and private investments in our built environment, risk assessments based on future projections, not historic data, and standards based on best practices for resilience, not code minimums, should be used to guide planning and design. Resilience in the face of inevitable hazards and shock is key to sustaining our communities and economies. What do you think?


Alan Scott, FAIA, LEED Fellow, LEED AP BD+C, O+M, WELL AP, CEM, is an architect with 30 years of experience in sustainable building design. He is a senior associate with WSP, in Portland, Ore. To learn more, visit www.wsp.com and follow him on Twitter @alanscott_faia.