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Resilience is the Next Step on the Path Toward Sustainability

Friday’s keynote session convened a group of design resilience experts and one of the sustainable design movement’s most influential leaders to talk about the urgency of using architecture to fight climate change and new ways that sustainable buildings must serve their communities.

By Mike Singer

As building performance metrics, green materials, passive design strategies, energy modeling and smart growth measures have propelled public understanding of ‘sustainable design’ during the past decade, a second, and, to some degree, less understood awareness of sustainability has forced its way into designers’ consciousness: design resilience. Design resilience was front and center at the second keynote session of the AIA Convention 2014. The session began with one of the pioneers of the sustainable design movement—Ed Mazria, AIA, founder and CEO of Architecture 2030, and concluded with a panel discussion on how and why resilience is being explored as the next frontier of sustainability.

“Why design with a purpose?” asked Mazria, whose non-profit research organization has developed planning, policy, and design solutions for low-carbon, sustainable built environments worldwide. “It’s because life depends on it.”

Mazria introduced a shared and bold vision to effectively deal with climate crisis when he enlisted the AIA in 2006 to help its member firms commit to constructing and retrofitting buildings that will result in net carbon neutrality by 2030.

“Every major scientific organization is telling us that we have a choice: to stay under two degrees centigrade global warming and then bring the planet back to pre-industrial levels, which is the climate we’ve always known,” Mazria said, “or go on with business as usual.”

Getting to carbon neutrality is a huge opportunity for architects, he said, as the urban built environment is responsible for 75 percent of all carbon emissions. Mazria cited studies showing that by 2030, 900 billion square feet of new and replacement structures will be built in urban areas world-wide. “That is 60 percent of the entire building stock of the world that will be built within the next two decades,” he said. “If we get it right, we solve the problem. If we don’t get it right, we lock in emission patterns for 80 years for buildings and 120 years for infrastructure.”

Design resiliency defined

Incremental efforts from the building industry and increased government regulations continue to inch closer to carbon neutrality. But at the same time, the impacts of climate change seem to be felt more widely than ever, as weather patterns have become more unpredictable, and at times destructive. During the past few years, design resilience has entered the architectural vocabulary as a reaction to numerous traumatic weather events: flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes. Events like these remind architects that no matter how energy efficient a building is, it’s not sustainable if a 25-year flood puts it underwater.

So what does design resiliency mean, asked keynote panel moderator Frances Anderton, host of KCRW’s DnA: Design and Architecture?

“It’s the ability to adapt to change, or a disturbance,” said panelist Rachel Minnery, AIA, a disaster resiliency activist who has led many post-disaster rebuilding projects with Architecture for Humanity. “It’s not just the immediate effects and the secondary hazards, but all the underlying issues that prevent a community and individuals from healing.”

Panelist Ellen Dunham-Jones, AIA, said that certain types of urbanism are more vulnerable than others. “Resiliency for me means retrofitting the suburbs. It’s an enormous opportunity and challenge, as the heavy carbon footprint of American suburbs means many of them lack resilience,” said Dunham-Jones, co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia. “All of that paving leads to more flooding. We have a road system in the suburbs that doesn’t allow for any redundancy. We had snow [traffic] jams in Atlanta, even with one-inch snow cover, [and] we couldn’t evacuate safely this past winter. The use of cars means a more sedentary lifestyle, and higher risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. We are re-greening along our commercial strip corridors, and introducing more public spaces and parks to increase the social network.”

There’s a social element to urban density that aids resilience in a way that would be recognizable to urbanist Jane Jacobs and the generations of fine-grained urbanism planners that have followed in her footsteps. “There will be disasters, but the [issue] around survival in any place is social cohesion,” said MacArthur Fellow and urban revitalization strategist and developer Majora Carter. “Good planning, good architecture, [and] good building can really make that happen. What defines social cohesion? High population density; busy commercial life; vibrant, thriving, open public spaces where people get to know each other. As the world continues to go through this global ‘weirding,’we are going to have to find more ways to build communities that allow for the most vulnerable among us to survive and thrive. We can create better ways to adapt, not only to the emergency situations that [happen], but also to the social traumas that happen on a day-to-day basis before an emergency does happen.”

Resilience equals health

“It’s really hard to separate the idea of resilience from the idea of health,” said panelist Robin Guenther, FAIA, co-author of Sustainable Healthcare Architecture and a principal at Perkins +Will. “Resilience thinking really came from the idea of ecosystem resilience, which came from the idea of why some ecosystems survived and thrived when stressed, and others didn’t.”

Guenther said it was very difficult to make the case to healthcare organizations that design sustainability mattered until she could make the case that sustainability is fundamentally about health. Bringing healthcare clients onboard meant explaining to them that investing more now in sustainable facilities pays off in the end, with a more cost-efficient building that also aids patient outcomes. “I think the same thing applies to resilience,” said Guenther.

“[An] individual’s health is embedded in a community. So what you see now are large healthcare organizations not only working on their energy consumption, but also really getting out into their communities, building their resilience, meaning building healthy communities,” she said. “More healthcare organizations are doing health district planning—overlaying health districts with eco-districts. They are beginning to view their world as being about the health status of their community.”

Guenther advocates that architects develop relationships with a broad range of constituents that have never sat around the same design tables before—even when it means making building owners more aware of possible negative community impacts to their design, location, and vision choices than they might prefer to be. "This is how we break the chain of development decisions that got us into this fix over the last 60 years.”

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Ed Mazria, AIA, cited studies showing that by 2030, 900 billion square feet of new and replacement structures will be built in urban areas world-wide.

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Keynote panelists (left to right) Rachel Minnery, AIA, Ellen Dunham-Jones, AIA, Majora Carter, Robin Guenther, FAIA, and moderator Frances Anderton at the Friday general session of AIA Convention 2014.

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