Resiliency: Future-proof building design

Ashley Eusey, PE, LEED AP, GGP

Resiliency has become a buzzword in sustainability circles and the green industry. Although used often, resiliency has many connotations and means different things. Recently, resiliency has been paired alongside climate change. According to the Resilient Design Institute, resilience is “the capacity to adapt to changing conditions and to maintain or regain functionality and vitality in the face of stress or disturbance.” In the context of architectural design, resiliency refers to the design intent of ensuring a structure’s ability to withstand environmental, sociopolitical, financial, and cultural impacts.

Photos courtesy Hoefer Wysocki
Photos courtesy Hoefer Wysocki

When contemplating resilient design, more and more questions continue to emerge. How should design best practices and standards be revised if 100-year storms are now happening every 10 years? It is a good question to ask, but is weather the biggest adversary in the pursuit of resilience? Or are there other factors one needs to ‘future-proof’ the buildings from?

For example, one prevalent challenge is the ever-changing and advancing technology. The Internet of Things (IoT) has taken many industries by storm and penetrated nearly every facet of modern life, causing building owners and designers to ask different questions. With the limitless capacity for sensors and data-collection devices, one no longer must ask, “what do I need to know,” but instead, “how much do I need to know.” Are occupancy sensors and certain thermostat controls now obsolete? Are there better ways of integrating mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) systems and their corresponding controls for more sustainable ends? Or are some of these methodologies simply overkill? Further, will some of these methodologies that seem too extensive now become the norm in the future, justifying the investment?

If the above was not mindboggling enough, another future to prepare buildings for is the ever-changing workforce. For example, the U.S. labor force is expected to grow only 0.7 percent between 2010 and 2020. The Baby Boomers are giving way to the smaller Gen X generation, so the pool of experienced labor is dwindling. Another interesting trend taking hold is work from home. Currently, one-third of private and public sector employees work remotely. As such, companies have taken to hoteling workstations or desk-sharing programs. Although reducing the number of employees working in an office saves on utility and rent costs, offices originally slated for a traditional workforce may need to rethink the use of the existing space. To top it off, a study at Harvard recently discovered the open floor concept that has dominated office design for years is actually hindering collaboration and productivity, not fostering it as hoped. In light of this new evidence, the industry is faced with reconsidering its space planning strategies. These factors are just a few of the many new workforce trends taking root and making the standard methodology of workplace design obsolete. This brings up yet another question: must work areas be resilient to changes in layout, business practice, and employee preference?

Each project team member plays an important role, so considering their perspectives and suggestions at the early stages through integrated design discussions can prevent costly changes during construction.
Each project team member plays an important role, so considering their perspectives and suggestions at the early stages through integrated design discussions can prevent costly changes during construction.

Finally, there is the concern of manmade disaster. This topic remains top of mind for many, yet is often unaddressed in design discussions. The attack in New York on 9/11 awoke the entire country to the reality of manmade disasters. Despite the potential to be just as damaging as natural disasters, this aspect of building design is rarely broached. In fact, often the elements required to make a building less susceptible to natural disasters do very little, if anything, to protect against manmade ones. How can buildings be bomb-proofed? Can different materials be used to minimize collateral damage in what seems to be inevitable school shootings? Should security systems be rethought? And if security methods are being redesigned, at what point does security cross the line of safety to become an invasion of privacy?

The seemingly unlimited considerations can be overwhelming. With so many potential threats to a building, what is a designer or building owner to do? How does one even begin to identify the many threats, let alone prioritize them in design? Although the concept of resilient design is gaining traction, it is not new. This author’s firm, among other design companies, has been integrating resiliency into its designs for years. Previously, the discussion and application of resiliency was mostly seen in healthcare, judicial, and government sectors. When patients’ lives are on the line or municipal or national security is at stake, especially post-9/11, potential hazards and consequences weigh heavier on the priority scale.

Blast-resistant consulting to mitigate terrorist attacks on government buildings, redundancy in power for hospital life-support devices during power outages, and bullet-resistant materials for police stations have been in the works for years. Only recently, this scale has been touted to the public as the standard to attain. From the author’s experience working with these building types, three pillars of resilient design have emerged as most successful: integrated design, flexibility, and education. Focusing on these early and throughout the design process will generate greater success in the battle against an unknown future.

Integrated design

Another recent sustainability-themed buzzword, integrated design simply entails getting more brain trust at the table. The earlier the brains are gathered, the better the building will be. When it comes to resilient design, each team member has an important piece of the puzzle that if left out or considered too late, could result in a costly change during construction or a severe consequence down the road. Design professionals bring their experience with specific building types as well as emerging design concepts or systems. Construction professionals can help with cost estimations and have a greater knowledge of how materials interact with various elements over time. Facility managers know the potential operational issues and are therefore better equipped to anticipate future needs in keeping the building running at optimal performance levels. Building users can speak to the day in and day out workings of the various spaces and can forecast trends in their industry. Who is included in the building user group will vary by project. For example, a school user group may include students, teachers, paraprofessionals, administrators, parents, and even a chief security officer. Hospital stakeholders include representatives from each department since healthcare needs differ across disciplines. For offices, human resources have their finger most firmly on the pulse of the company’s employees and needs of the workplace. Sometimes even city officials, utility companies, or certain manufacturers need to be brought into the discussion. Since the user group will be different for each project, it is important to determine the various viewpoints needed to fully encapsulate the project’s vision before one starts the design.

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