Resiliency: Future-proof building design

Flexibility is an important aspect of resilient design. Modular and movable interior systems can help owners and building occupants to maximize the space.
Flexibility is an important aspect of resilient design. Modular and movable interior systems can help owners and building occupants to maximize the space.

Now that everyone is at the table, how should the discussion begin? Certainly, there are more aspects of resiliency than those presented above, but they illustrate the general scope of brainstorming. To ‘future-proof,’ the design professional needs to first determine and document the ideal future state, and then explore potential threats to that desired state, keeping in mind threats are inherently unknown and unpredictable actions. The future state should address time, physical size and scale, and directly align with the organization’s strategic and business plans. For example, if a tenant only has a 10-year lease, it does not make sense to invest in anything with a payback period longer than the lease time or for a situation that may arise long after the tenant leaves. Obviously, it is not possible (or even economically feasible) to plan for every potential risk to a building. Also, the farther one looks into the future the greater the possibility of error. Although a cumulative list of design concerns will be generated, the list then needs to be weighted to prioritize investments. The weighting scale should primarily be established by the building’s user group (they must live with this future after all) but informed by the expertise of the design and construction team. Once priorities are determined, strategies and associated costs should be assigned to each item on the list. From there the team can make an educated decision on which strategies make sense financially as well as programmatically.

Flexibility

Speaking of design strategies, flexibility is key to attaining resiliency. It is wise to remember the reed that bends in the wind survives the storm whereas the tree standing against it is torn to pieces. This aspect is literally applied to some earthquake-proof buildings with flexible structures. The more flexible a building’s structure is, the less energy is required to keep it from tumbling or crumbling. The concept of flexibility withstanding future threats does not stop at the structure; it applies to every aspect of a building. In fact, the more flexible an interior space is, the easier it can respond to changes in workplace dynamics, shifts in business objectives, and ever-changing employee style preferences. When contemplating flexibility within the building envelope, all disciplines need to be consulted. Mechanical and electrical systems, often seen as more permanent measures, can even be designed to change over time. Plug-and-play low voltage and electrical systems, underfloor HVAC, and increased plenum space to allow for future remodels and reconfigurations all assist in system resiliency. With power now available via Ethernet cables for equipment, electrical loads can be downsized and switched to data. Wireless devices also eliminate the need for hardwiring, allowing devices to be easily relocated without demolition.

Ongoing education is critical to keep a building resilient.
Ongoing education is critical to keep a building resilient.

Interior finishes, too, can be placed inside the realm of flexibility. Modular interior systems allow for walls to be easily moved and repurposed elsewhere. These systems also have customizable panels to host a variety of finishes and imbedded technology. Without much effort, a plastic laminate wood office can suddenly have a full-height marker board or monitor wall just by ordering and installing different panels. Modular and movable furniture can finish out the space to maximize the possibilities of future layouts. Both types of furniture give employees the added satisfaction of being able to customize their individual workspaces as well as create on-the-fly collaboration areas. This level of freedom and control brings the added benefit of employees who feel empowered, engaged, and appreciated. Overall, the more adaptable a building is in all aspects (systems, technology, structure, finishes) the better it can withstand the changes of the future.

Education

Finally, education throughout the entire design and construction process and well into occupancy is necessary to keep a building resilient. Building owners need to fully understand their investments and the rationale for the same just as the design and the construction teams must acknowledge the building user’s vision for their space as well as long-term goals. By bringing all perspectives together, each can learn from others.

Also, education about the project’s resiliency goals should be communicated to subcontractors throughout construction, and to building occupants. Ongoing education of occupants is the responsibility of the facility owners, since turnover is inevitable. In building types where occupants cycle out more than others (healthcare, schools, etc.) these conversations need to happen more frequently or perhaps permanent methods of education (signage, employee policies, etc.) need to be implemented. It does not matter how resilient or well designed a building is if the occupants do not know how to fully utilize its potential. For example, if flexible lighting controls are installed to maximize energy efficiency and to allow for flexible space usage but no one knows how to work the system, how useful was that strategy? Or, if bullet-resistant mesh is installed in walls of schools to avoid bullet ricochet but future additions do not use the same strategy out of ignorance, is the school really shooter resistant? Design professionals need to share the lessons learned on a project and communicate their concerns for the future with others for any of these measures to be truly impactful.

As illustrated, resiliency can be a daunting concept. By elevating awareness of its value to owners and occupants and maintaining adherence to the three design pillars of integrated design, flexibility, and education, designers can facilitate manageable and meaningful discussions of this vital concept. Resiliency will continue to have various meanings because everyone has different needs, experiences, and perspectives. Even within the same building type, occupants enter with distinct goals, needs, desires, and expectations. Although there is no definitive resiliency formula or solution to please everyone, facilitating candid conversations can guide stakeholders toward common ground, resulting in solutions meeting the greatest need. The construction industry needs to approach the topic of resiliency together and with the same flexibility buildings are being designed. If people remain biased or focused on advancing personal agendas, the uncertain future has already won. Unless everyone learns to flex and grows together like reeds along a riverbank, humankind would be swept away by the storms of life.

Ashley Eusey, PE, LEED AP, GGP, is Hoefer Wysocki’s lead professional engineer and sustainability manager. She has a diverse background in sustainable engineering, construction, and design. As a champion of sustainability, Eusey continually raises the bar in regard to performance-driven sustainable design at Hoefer Wysocki, and is currently working as the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) project administrator. Eusey can be reached at ashley.eusey@hoeferwysocki.com.

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