Feature Article

The Four Core Issues to Tackle for Resilient Design (And the Programs That Can Help)

As rating systems from LEED to RELi lay out key design steps for resilient design, it’s still up to project teams to bring critical perspective.

The Eddy, in Boston, Massachusetts, obtained an insurance quote ten times lower than that of a comparable conventional building because of the site-specific resilience features it incorporates.

Image: Stantec
Hurricanes, tsunamis, wildfires, and other disasters have drawn attention to resilient design mostly by showing us what not to do in the built environment. We’ve come a long way in a short time, and today we’re on the cusp of having metrics and rating systems that clearly define what we should do—how to design buildings that can withstand natural disasters and even remain functional during and after disruptions.

These frameworks (the major ones are REDi, RELi, FORTIFIED, and pilot credits in LEED, all discussed in detail below) are enabling practitioners to set quantifiable goals for resilience. A pilot project for the REDi rating system, 181 Fremont, will be capable of being reoccupied immediately after a magnitude 8.0 earthquake and will sustain financial losses under 2.5% of project’s total value, according to its engineers. Other rating systems aim to maintain livable temperatures without mechanical systems for more than a week or to expand occupancy without losing off-grid capabilities.

As the targets become more specific, however, it can be difficult to keep the big picture in sight. Because these various frameworks are relatively new (some have yet to be tested by project teams) and differ so significantly in scope and focus, it is even more important to develop the kind of critical thinking that keeps teams motivated by the underlying values of resilient design. The experts that BuildingGreen interviewed, many of them the creators of these programs, highlighted four essential core issues that teams should consider, no matter which framework is being used as a tool:

  1. addressing the most likely hazards
  2. factoring in climate change
  3. fostering social cohesion
  4. problem-solving across scales

Developing the skills to address these core issues will help professionals stay ahead of the curve and incorporate resilience on all projects, even as the various frameworks become more defined.

Addressing the Most Likely Hazards

From the very outset of the project, resilient design calls for teams to question their assumptions. Thus, there are some key questions to ask before blindly following a checklist.

‘Do I even need to think about this?’

Before jumping into selecting hurricane-proof windows and designing safe rooms, teams should evaluate what level of resilience the project calls for, according to Mary Ann Lazarus, FAIA and principal at MALeco. Lazarus co-chaired the effort to develop LEED pilot credits on resilient design (see below). One method is to ask what the service life of the building is expected to be. “If your building is only supposed to last for 15 years, then it may not be worth it to go through all these thought exercises,” says Lazarus.

The conversation may lead the team toward designing for deconstruction. Or, rather than spending effort on “hardening” a building to survive a disaster, the structure could be designed to be taken down before a storm. For example, “tent cottages” have been erected at Maho Bay in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where hurricanes are a concern, because the canvas-covered wood frames can easily be disassembled before a storm or inexpensively replaced if they are destroyed.

Most buildings that are designed today are expected to last into the 2050s, which makes them more likely to experience damaging natural disasters and more likely to need to adapt to the consequences of climate change. However, even then, it is worth considering how the building type affects resilience needs, says Lazarus. Hospitals and other essential facilities have the highest need to maintain operability. Other spaces, like schools and community centers, may serve as emergency shelters and therefore may also have high demand for resilience strategies.

For office spaces, downtime results in financial losses and has repercussions throughout the community in the form of lost wages. However, in terms of life safety, they may be lower priority. “Offices may need to keep people safe for a few hours, but most people will attempt to go home in an extended emergency,” says Alex Wilson, founder of the Resilient Design Institute. (Disclosure: Alex Wilson is also the founder of BuildingGreen.) In the pilot credits that Wilson helped create, commercial buildings don’t need to incorporate a backup power supply for as long a period of time as homes do.

It’s all about talking to the client about what their priorities are and what they expect from investing in resilience, says Mark Meaders, a sustainability leader at HDR Inc. and a member of the Resilient Design LEED Pilot Credit Committee.  HDR is designing an office project in the Midwest where the owner and project team are reviewing areas for places of refuge (possibly in the lower level of the garage) in case of dangerous high winds. Basic emergency backup power will be provided for telecom equipment and the server room, and to cool and heat certain areas of the building. But it won’t cover things like office lighting, according to Meaders. If there’s a disaster, the building will be able to provide refuge during the incident, but if there’s an extended outage afterward, it is expected that people will want to go home instead of continuing to work at their desks.

Hazards by zip code?

The Bell Museum and Planetarium at the University of Minnesota is designed to handle a 1,000-year rain event.

Image: Perkins+Will
If the team deems it appropriate to target some level of resilient design, the next step is to figure out what kind of disaster the team is trying to address. That may sound obvious, but it is actually a departure from how a great deal of resilient design has been conducted to date.

“[Superstorm] Sandy happened, and we all had to rebuild, and all of a sudden you are a resilient designer,” says Valerie Walsh of Walsh Sustainability Group, another member of the Resilient Design LEED Pilot Credit Committee. Much of resilient design thus far has been reactionary, she says.

However, being resilient calls for planning for the most likely hazards—not just the ones in recent memory. Doing this methodically is called a “hazard assessment,” and all of the multi-attribute resilience frameworks reviewed later in this article require teams to perform one.

For example, in LEED, a prerequisite for two of the credits is for the team to refer to local, county, and state hazard mitigation plans if available. Where mitigation plans aren’t available, the credit lists national resources to consult about the risk of flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires, drought, and landslides individually.

“We needed a process to force the right questions—to make designers do their homework,” says Lazarus.

Meaders told BuildingGreen that the assessment outlined by the LEED pilot credits takes only a couple of hours. His company has already decided that, as a rule, they will plan on doing the assessment for projects that are already pursuing a green building certification. For all other projects, HDR is encouraging the analysis and is providing a simple template to fill out.

Site-specific data

The reason for the specificity, says Walsh, is that certain hazards don’t apply evenly across zip codes. She mentions a property just blocks from her office where the hotel is in a different FEMA flood designation than the hotel restaurant. Furthermore, state or community officials are allowed to adopt more-restrictive floodplain management criteria than the minimum federal requirements, which a cursory FEMA site search wouldn't reveal. “Some [data] is really good at a national level, and some might be more detailed at the local level,” Walsh explains.

Another project in Boston also found that doing site-specific hazard analysis paid off—in very real monetary terms. Designed by ADD Inc. (now Stantec), The Eddy is a 267,000 ft2 mixed-use project on East Boston’s waterfront. The design employs various strategies to mitigate flooding, including locating the electrical room on the first floor above the floodplain and limiting entrances on the waterfront side. But the project also had to be wind resistant, and in Boston, the code default is to design to withstand winds up to 100 miles per hour—unless you conduct a site-specific wind analysis. Conducting the analysis revealed more-precise exposures that justified using lighter-gauge steel.

That lowered construction costs, and because the team had already conducted the analysis, it was easy to take the next step and estimate financial losses based on actual exposure (the site-specific wind levels projected for the site) and building design. The findings predicted losses of only several million dollars; similar, conventional buildings incur tens of millions in losses. Among other features, this helped convince the insurance provider to quote a premium ten times lower than it would have quoted for a comparable conventional building, according to an Urban Land Institute report.

Potential sticking points

The LEED pilot credits advise teams to work with an environmental consultant to help identify hazards. This could help project teams find the most reliable sources and make educated decisions even where the data may be dodgy. There is little good data on landslide risk, for example, says Alex Wilson. However, for most areas, the top hazards will likely be pretty obvious and won’t require outside expertise.

“One question that might come up with the pilot credits is whether you get a free ride if there are no vulnerabilities,” notes Wilson, “but I don’t think there’s a county in U.S. that hasn’t had a disaster.” If no natural disasters are obvious, there are always anthropogenic disasters, like terrorist attacks, or disruptions to municipal water supplies due to industrial accidents (like West Virginia in 2014), agricultural runoff (Ohio in 2014–15), and mismanagement (Flint, Michigan in 2014–16), he says.

Factoring in Climate Change

Climate Scenarios at Your Fingertips

Just enter a zip code, and the Projected CREAT Climate Scenarios tool pulls up changes in annual temperature, precipitation, and 100-year storm intensity over two 30-year time periods: 2021–2050 and 2046–2075.

Screen capture: ArcGIS
If some data are lacking for current hazards, there’s even less about how these hazards are expected to fluctuate with climate change. Design teams will need to learn how to manage with a degree of uncertainty.

Proponents of resilience have long recognized that planning for climate change would be imperative. “Design is about solving problems for society. If we are not solving the problems that are present and increasingly pressing, then we aren’t doing our job,” says Janice Barnes, Ph.D., AIA, managing partner at Climate Adaptation Partners. But finding good sources for quantifying the risks can be challenging.

The RELi resilient design action list that Perkins&Will helped develop (described in more detail later) focuses heavily on sea-level rise, using National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and FEMA predictions. Projects that are expected to be inundated with 4–5 feet of sea level rise must be completely retrofitted and protected by 2020, while projects that are expected to be inundated with 5–6 feet of sea level rise must be protected by 2022.

In addition, the Extreme Rain credit in RELi assumes a linear increase in extreme rainfall events. It requires teams to increase the amount of anticipated rain by a factor of 1.55 from observed change between 1958 and 2012 based on data in the U.S. National Climate Assessment Report.  Because they may be used to plan for runoff and building protection during (at best) a 100-year rainfall, “civil engineers will look at you like you are crazy” when you ask them to assume something much more extreme, says Douglas Pierce, AIA, of Perkins&Will and the primary developer of RELi.

The credit has been piloted on the design of the Bell Museum and Planetarium at the University of Minnesota. At that location, the credit comes down to managing a 1,000-year rain event onsite, which is equivalent to climate change scenarios predicted for 2040, according to Pierce. By allowing for some nuisance flooding in the parking lots and grounds, the team expects the design will be able to perform in such a scenario without any damage to the building.

LEED pilot credits add winter storms, extreme heat, and storm intensity as factors that need to be weighed in a climate change assessment. The U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit is a great place to start, according to Lazarus (also worth checking out is our report Designing for the Next Century’s Weather). Lazarus explained to BuildingGreen how she used the Projected CREAT Climate Scenarios tool to pull up changes in annual temperature, changes in precipitation, and changes in 100-year storm intensity to 2035 and 2060 for a specific site location (see screen capture).

As with the hazard assessment, there’s also the possibility that local studies have been done. Oregon and Washington, for example, each conducted a climate change assessment in 2010, which was updated for the Pacific Northwest region in 2013.

When the data are shifty

If there haven’t been comprehensive studies, common sense applies, says Lazarus. In general, there’s typically an interaction between climate change and existing hazards where the current hazards are expected to become more frequent and intense. “The solutions don’t need to be precise as long as they are addressing the issue,” says Lazarus. “If you have some flooding problems, plan for more flooding.”

Another common-sense tip: use climate change information to inform decisions about features that will be around the longest—and don’t worry about the rest. Choosing a site and determining the makeup of the envelope are decisions that will affect a building’s resilience for its entire service life. It wouldn’t make sense to size a chiller with a 25-year service life based on temperature projections for 2050.

The important part, most agreed, is learning to make climate change part of the decision-making. “We are all used to designing to code, forgetting about the silent player at the table. [Climate change vulnerability assessments] are about giving a voice to what is changing rapidly,” says Walsh.

Fostering Social Cohesion

In addition to these new kinds of assessments, a shift toward resilience calls for some new soft skills—in particular, a new spin on the longstanding practice of community engagement.  

For many years, researchers have pointed out that the ability to bounce back depends not only on how the built environment weathers the storm but also on the degree to which people are able to pool their resources and take care of each other. When Chicago experienced the heat wave of 1995, the excessive heat disproportionately affected low-income neighborhoods. That might be expected, as low-income people are typically in lower-quality housing and have fewer resources to cope with a disaster.

However, the researcher Eric Klinenberg, Ph.D., also found that some low-income neighborhoods defied that trend. In fact, three low-income communities were in the top ten Chicago neighborhoods with the lowest rates of heat-related deaths. He attributed this to high levels of community interaction and organization, which decreased isolation among residents.

The more recent experience with Superstorm Sandy in 2012 reinforced the same lesson. A survey administered by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that recovery has been slower in areas where people expressed less trust of other people.

Community engagement is required in a lot of local planning projects, says Heather Rosenberg, director of the Building Resilience-L.A. Initiative with the U.S. Green Building Council Los Angeles Chapter, but designers “tend to think of it as a box to check.” In resilient design, though, the people are in a lot of ways more important than the building. “You could have the most resilient building in the world, but if everything around you is shutting down, and employees can’t get to work because they can’t deal with what’s happening at home, then business still comes to a standstill,” she says. According to Rosenberg, project teams have to go beyond giving people a chance for their voices to be heard, instead asking themselves “how to make a process that builds local cohesion that extends beyond the project.”  

Building community in practice

With the help of USGBC L.A., this building housing the well-respected organization SCOPE has been retrofitted to act as an emergency center.

Photo: SCOPE
Some projects have encouraged social cohesion through their programming, but deep engagement in this arena is just getting started.

Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston—a Perkins&Will project that is often considered a trailblazer in resilient design—made a particular effort to encourage public use of its facilities. The ground floor is open to the public, and community members have access to the cafeteria restaurant, the rehabilitation pool, and the conference space. In addition, the site around the building encourages patients, families, and neighborhood residents to mix while utilizing the therapy garden, interpretive harbor walk, tennis courts, and dock.

“This public open space has been embraced by the community and has inspired the development of a fully accessible public playground on a city-owned parcel at the forecourt for the hospital,” David Burson, senior project manager at Partners HealthCare, told BuildingGreen.

The Building Resilience-L.A. Initiative has produced a guide that is meant to encourage more projects teams to think about and expand on these types of opportunities. Rosenberg gives an example of a community-building strategy: instead of just planting trees to help with stormwater infiltration, organize a community event around planting the trees.

Informing the guide was work conducted with the organization Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education (SCOPE). Created in response to the riots that erupted after police officers were acquitted of brutally beating Rodney King in 1992, the organization is a trusted presence for community organizing in South L.A and is a logical host for an emergency center. The building will be retrofitted for that purpose and additionally will serve as a small-business incubator for resilience-related ventures, such as organizations working on utility rebates, residential-scale graywater systems, or seismic retrofits. Work training programs will concurrently be held around these topics and will directly feed the emerging businesses’ workforce needs.

Rosenberg views integrated solutions like these as the future of resilient design. “We haven’t done a good enough job of thinking about who is in our communities, what social functions our projects provide, and what social functions they rely on,” she says. “We have to get better at building bridges.”

Problem-Solving Across Scales

The Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System’s “upside-down” design means that the systems that connect the hospital to the city grid are on the fourth level, well away from flooding.

Image: NBBJ
Similar perhaps to social cohesion, some factors that influence resilience are best addressed at a scale larger than the project site. 

“Say everyone decided to implement backup power,” posits Douglas Pierce. “If everyone used diesel as a fuel source, we would suddenly have pollution at the community scale.” To prevent that, someone—whether that be the city, a neighborhood, or a proactive project team—would need to take responsibility for district planning, says Pierce. The same thing would be desirable for micro-grids, district wastewater treatment, and alternative transportation and accessibility issues.

To some degree, this kind of thinking is beginning to happen at the city planning level. Often with assistance by the 100 Resilient Cities network (which has since lost much of its funding from The Rockefeller Foundation) many cities have—or are in the process of—developing resilience plans. As of October 2019, 74 cities from around the world had resilience plans listed on the 100 Resilient Cities website, including Los Angeles, New York, El Paso, and Chicago.    

In one of the earliest resilience plans for Norfolk, Virginia, addressing ongoing stresses like limited job opportunities and social inequities was combined with rewriting the zoning code for coastal resilience and exploring green infrastructure and seawall upgrades. Understanding and aligning with that plan would be imperative for any team evaluating flood risk at a particular site.

More recently, Boston’s Coastal Flood Resilience Design Guidelines proposed a zoning overlay in places where sea-level rise presents an imminent threat. The guidelines also outlined design strategies categorized by common building types found in Boston, such as attached townhouses, triple deckers, and pre-war mixed-use buildings. 

Some projects have already adopted this type of district thinking even without a community-wide plan. Mark Meaders is currently involved with a project in Florida where the owner determined not to incorporate backup power for water pumps since an adjacent building already had such backup measures in place. In effect, one building could anchor the campus for water and sewer needs during an emergency.

For the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System in New Orleans, vulnerability stemming from dependence on city systems was made crystal clear when Hurricane Katrina wiped out the existing veterans medical center in 2004. The new design allows the hospital to operate independently for up to five days using a central energy plant with 320,000 gallons of fuel stored onsite and a rainwater storage tank that would help maintain operation of cooling systems. The systems that connect the hospital to the city power grid are located on the building’s fourth level to protect them from flood damage, earning it the description of the “upside-down hospital.”

Emerging Standards and Rating Systems

Fortunately, many of the standards and rating systems for resilience do offer frameworks or entry points for teams to tackle these core issues—along with the more concrete design criteria specific to certain natural hazards.

Because these frameworks are relatively new, it is not yet clear what the stumbling blocks will be for project teams or even how the various frameworks that are being developed might interface with each other to help teams address the full scope of resilience.

Source: BuildingGreen, Inc.
“We’re at the bleeding edge” of developing rating systems for resilience, says Pierce. But at the pace that institutional and commercial clients are requesting resilient design, it is worth becoming familiar with what has been developed so far and exploring what makes sense to try on your next project.


FORTIFIED programs have been around for the longest and are referenced in RELi, LEED, and REDi for many of the “hardening” aspects of resilience.

When Hurricane Ike hit the Bolivar Peninsula in 2008, ten homes built to the IBHS FORTIFIED for Safer Living standard were among the last houses standing.

Photo: Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety
The Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) offers both a FORTIFIED Home and FORTIFIED Commercial standard, applicable for new homes and retrofits. FORTIFIED Home has two separate standards for high winds and hurricane hazards, while FORTIFIED Commercial has just one standard for wind—though it includes recommendations to protect against  floods and hail as well.

FORTIFIED for Safer Living and FORTIFIED for Safer Business are multi-hazard programs, encompassing flood, interior fire and water damage, earthquake, wildfire, high wind, and severe winter weather.

If you are in an area with a reasonably stringent code, “typically the differences between being code-built and achieving a FORTIFIED designation are not huge,” Chuck Miccolis, managing director of Commercial Lines, told BuildingGreen. The standards usually aim for slightly higher safety ratings than code. In fact, some places have even incorporated FORTIFIED’s requirements on sealing roof decks into code, says Miccolis. With an engineer on board, project teams should have no trouble achieving the designation they’re shooting for.

Currently, homeowners can qualify for lower wind or flood insurance premiums in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Oklahoma by pursuing FORTIFIED designations.

LEED pilot credits

Three new LEED pilot credits in resilient design were approved in November 2015, taken down briefly, and then opened again in 2018. The goal of the credits is to make sure that project teams are aware of the specific natural and human-made disasters that are most common to the project’s region and that teams begin to address the most significant risks through the project’s design, says Alex Wilson.

The first credit, IPpc98: Assessment and Planning for Resilience, includes a prerequisite that the team conduct a hazard assessment for the site, taking into account how conditions are forecast to change with climate change. Teams can then choose between undergoing climate-related risk management planning or completing emergency planning forms from the Red Cross.

The emergency planning option may be one entry point for teams to think about their role in fostering social cohesion, says Valerie Walsh. The main purpose of this option is to spur a discussion about an organization’s emergency response plan. However, part five of the assessment asks questions about the extended community, including whether staff members have been encouraged to have emergency plans for their households and whether the organization has picked a group in the extended community to help become better prepared for emergencies.

To achieve the second credit, IPpc99: Assessment and Planning for Resilience, teams address any of the top three hazards revealed by the hazard assessment; addressing one hazard earns one point, and addressing two earns two. Here the credit relies heavily on referencing other programs, like the International Wildland-Urban Interface Code or FORTIFIED Commercial.

The third credit, IPpc100: Passive Survivability and Functionality During Emergencies, is about maintaining livable conditions during an event. Project teams can earn one point for pursuing one path or two points for pursuing both:

  • demonstrate that the building will maintain livable temperatures for a prescribed period of time (three days for an office building, seven days for a residential building)
  • demonstrate the capability to provide emergency power for high-priority functions

Demonstrating thermal resilience can be accomplished through thermal modeling can be accomplished by using a relatively unknown metric—standard effective temperature (SET)—instead of dry-bulb temperature (see our primer, Standard Effective Temperature: A Metric for Thermal Comfort and Resilience)—or by using the Center for the Built Environment (CBE) Comfort Tool’s psychrometric chart. There’s also a prescriptive path: Passive House certification.

Anyone already using Energy Plus or Integrated Environmental Solutions Virtual Environment (IES VE) should be able to learn how to do a thermal model, as long as there is clear guidance on what should be simulated, according to Erik Olsen, P.E., of Transsolar KlimaEngineering’s New York City office, who worked on creating the credit.

In terms of providing emergency power, teams have to demonstrate that critical loads (defined in two different compliance paths) will be covered. Building type governs the duration for which backup power must last. 

The RELi Rating System

RELi was developed as a consensus-based certification, “similar to LEED, but with a lens on resilienc[e],” according to an introduction on its website.  Now owned by the U.S. Green Building Council, it is included as a resource for the RELi Green + Resilient Property Underwriting and Finance Standard, which is intended to help insurance underwriters value the green and resilient attributes of a project. No insurers have agreed to use the action list as an equivalency for insurance breaks yet, according to Pierce, but “those conversations are happening.”

Now being piloted in Version 2.0, but only available to projects also seeking LEED certification, RELi’s scope is vast. Stuart Kaplow of Green Building Law Update has even somewhat tongue-in-cheek called it “an architect’s dystopian rule book for society.” In addition to disaster preparedness, indoor air quality and energy efficiency parameters are prerequisites. It is described as design criteria for neighborhoods, buildings, homes, and infrastructure, and its credits integrate urban planning (like protecting transportation systems for continuous operation) and social equity (such as expanding local skills for long-term employment).

The project team for Christus Spohn Hospital, a pilot project for RELi, identified hazardous-material spills, extreme rain events, and standing water flooding as the biggest potential risks for the site.

Image: Perkins+Will
Of all the frameworks discussed here, RELi takes on social issues most enthusiastically. “We really wanted to make the concept of ‘social cohesion’ tangible to architects,” says Pierce. There are credits for developing organizations like cooperatives or B-Corporations that serve the public good, for providing community spaces like meeting rooms or recreational spaces, and for hiring locally (some of these credits are borrowed from the Envision Sustainable Infrastructure Rating System).

RELi was piloted on the Christus Spohn Hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas. This project was designed to function during and after a Category Four hurricane, and to accommodate sea-level rise, extreme rain events, and a loss of power.

With RELi’s emphasis on jumping back and forth between project and community scales, the project team has run across limitations in being able to influence resilience features of the neighborhood streets and the local sewage plant. “In Christus Spohn, we believe we can keep the building operational, but if the city sewer system goes down, then the building has to shut down,” says Pierce. RELi is designed to make teams uncover and think about systemic limitations like these—even if they can’t resolve a specific issue for the current project.

USRC Earthquake Building Rating System

The U.S. Resiliency Council launched its Earthquake Standard in November 2015, and it has since become a recognized compliance path for credits in RELi. The organization also plans to release similar standards for wind, flood, storm, and wildfire soon. The rating system assigns one to five stars for three performance measures: Safety, Damage, and Recovery. (Recovery is defined as the time required to effect repairs and remove obstacles; it does not include pipe breakage, business interruption, or damage to building contents.)

A professional rater determines whether the building achieves one star for building safety (meaning there’s a high potential for building collapse and a loss of life) or five stars (performance is unlikely to cause injury or block exit paths from the building) based on the ASCE 31 engineering assessment of the building and the ground-shaking intensity expected to occur during the lifetime of the building. Working closely with an engineer to meet the design criteria in ASCE 31 is the best way to meet this standard.

Source: BuildingGreen, Inc.
There are two types of USRC ratings: transactional and verified. The transactional rating is confidential and is supposed to act as a due diligence assessment to provide more information for leasing, sales, finance, and insurance professionals. The rating is performed by a professional rater, but not every rating is reviewed by USRC.

Verified ratings are performed by a professional rater, technically reviewed, and meant to be used by the owner for promotional purposes.

USRC has certified more than 60 buildings so far, according to Evan Reis of USRC. The organization is also working with Fannie Mae to set up a program where USRC certified buildings can secure mortgage discounts.  


This rating system is also specific to earthquakes. However, a version is also currently being developed for flooding. The Resilience-based Earthquake Design Initiative (REDi) rating system was developed by the Advanced Technology and Research Team at Arup and seeks to go beyond current building codes, which are “designed to protect the lives of building occupants,” toward enhancing “the ability of an organization or community to quickly recover after a future large earthquake,” according to Arup’s website.

The idea is to provide design and planning criteria that enable owners to resume business operations and arrive at livable conditions quickly. “Disruption to business continuity can be the most costly aspect of a disaster,” says Brian Swett, the director of cities and sustainable real estate for Arup. He worked in the Prudential Tower in Boston when a transformer went out, and twelve city blocks surrounding the building were non-operational for two days. “Many owners have insured their building but don’t have business continuity insurance. That was an eye-opener for Boston.”

To aim for operational continuity, REDi lays out criteria for three fundamental areas of resilience:

  1. Building resilience: Enhanced structural design and safer egress measures that address preserving the building asset and sustaining less damage (as opposed to just life safety)
  2. Ambient resilience: Site planning measures in acknowledgment that surrounding structures can collapse or shed debris, putting additional stress on a given site
  3. Organizational resilience: Planning measures that have the potential to avoid delays to recovery time, such as having already conducted an assessment of business impact risk, direct financial loss, and downtime

In REDi, social resilience is addressed indirectly through the “organizational resilience” measures. The organization becomes more aware of emergency planning, says Brian Swett, because the owner conducts so many assessments, including how an earthquake could affect downtime, impact business transactions, and lead to direct financial losses. One credit encourages the owner to provide earthquake supply kits and trainings to its tenants and employees.

Prescriptive requirements are identified for each level of this rating system: Silver, Gold, and Platinum. Platinum (the highest rating) represents an expected re-occupancy immediately, functional recovery within 72 hours, and direct financial losses below 2.5% of the total building value. Silver (the lowest rating) represents re-occupancy and functional recovery within six months, and a direct financial loss of less than 10%.

One of the criteria that aids in these quick re-occupancy times is participating in San Francisco’s Building Occupancy Resumption Program (BORP)—or following its guidelines if the project is in another city. An owner retains a structural engineer on an annual basis to come inspect the building if an earthquake occurs, rather than waiting for typically swamped city officials. BuildingGreen spoke to Eugene Tuan at Tuan & Robinson Structural Engineers, who performs this service for twelve buildings. He says his clients are all office building owners that want to avoid the financial losses of downtime. His firm promises to inspect the buildings within 72 hours.

Offices seem to be a sweet spot for REDi. The rating system was piloted on the 181 Fremont building in San Francisco. Although meeting all the REDi requirements involved additional measures that increased costs, the developer, Jay Paul Company, invested for the potential of insurance savings and marketing advantages. “It can quantify what the financial loss will be in the event of an earthquake,” Jake Albini, manager of real estate development for Jay Paul Company, told UrbanLand. “At the Gold and Platinum levels, it will ensure that your building will be able to be re-occupied immediately after an 8.0 earthquake.” (Magnitudes of 8.0 and up represent the highest level, capable of destroying conventionally built structures near the epicenter.)

The team earned the Gold level of performance at 181 Fremont through a rather unique design. The usual strategy for absorbing seismic and wind loads in an area as prone as San Francisco would have typically been to use a tuned mass damper (a massive steel ball that is suspended and allowed to sway to counteract movement caused by an earthquake or high winds), but that would have taken up the top two floors of the building. Instead, Arup has proposed using viscous dampers (a hydraulic system connected to steel members to manage vibrations) in the building’s diagonal mega-braces. The top two floors can then be sold as penthouses for this 70-story mixed-use office tower.

The LEED pilot credit “Design for Enhanced Resilience” references REDi Silver as a compliance path to address earthquake hazards (along with FORTIFIED, though REDi is clearly the more ambitious compliance path).

A Mix of Hard and Soft Skills

Effective public space takes on a whole new importance through a resilience lens. Here, Spaulding Rehabilitation Center encourages patients and neighborhood members to mix in outdoor, stress-free environments.

Photo: Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital
Whether it means conducting a hazard assessment, modeling for livable temperatures, or developing a financial loss report, engaging with resilient design frameworks will require learning at least a few new hard skills. These, after all, lead to more-concrete metrics, which in turn make a better case for resilient design.

However, developers of these frameworks emphasized to BuildingGreen that soft skills—like committing to a process that truly engages the community, or stepping back and considering larger-scale relationships—are equally important. These skills relate to issues that are core to making buildings and communities more resilient, even if existing frameworks haven’t totally worked out how to incorporate them yet. Prioritizing hard and soft skills equally will allow project teams to establish great resilient designs, and frameworks and rating systems will improve by following their lead.

Originally published March 7, 2016 Reviewed October 28, 2019

Pearson, C. (2019, October 28). The Four Core Issues to Tackle for Resilient Design (And the Programs That Can Help). Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/feature/four-core-issues-tackle-resilient-design-and-programs-can-help

Continuing Education

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Learning Objectives
Upon completing this course, participants will be able to:

  1. Use site-specific hazard analysis to evaluate a project's resiliency demands.
  2. Use climate change data to inform resilient-design decisions.
  3. Practice community engagement to foster social cohesion and problem-solve across scales.
  4. Apply emerging standards and rating systems to resilient design.

To earn continuing education credit, make sure you are logged into your personal BuildingGreen account, then read this article and pass this quiz.

Discussion Questions
Use the following questions to inform class discussions or homework assignments.

Choose one resilient design project—your own, another’s, real, imaginary, or use one of the pilot projects discussed in the article.

  1. Review the four core issues laid out in the introduction. Beginning with the first—addressing the most likely hazards—what level of resilience does your project call for? What kinds of disasters are you trying to address? How would you approach a hazard assessment and why? Take a look at Urban Land Institute’s report: what about the resilience of your project would create value? What skills and knowledge would an environmental consultant bring to your project?
  2. Moving on to the second core issue—factoring in climate change—how would you include climate change in your decision-making process? How would you manage the inherent uncertainty around climate change?
  3. The third core issue—fostering social cohesion—asks that you embrace some soft skills. What would those look like for your project? How would you “make a process that builds local cohesion that extends beyond the project” (and why would you need to)? 
  4. Regarding the fourth and final core issue—problem-solving across scales—what factors that influence resilience are best addressed at a scale larger than your project site? 
  5. To best tackle the four core resilient-design issues, what emerging standard(s) or rating system(s) would you choose as an entry point or framework for your project and why?

Having answered these questions, how would you now explain the importance of bringing critical perspective to resilient design?


March 9, 2016 - 7:57 pm

Great stuff! The kind we've come to expect from BuildingGreen, but great nonetheless. Still, resilience is a deep topic, a rich concept, and one we've only begun to scratch the surface on. Most of the resilience dialoge orbits around engineering resilience, but there is much to be learned from the resilience concept as developed in some of the other sciences, most particularly socio-ecological. And we won't get far in strengthening the resilience of the built environment until we broaden the resilience dialogue to include durability, adaptability, and buildings designed for far longer service life than is currently considered.

March 10, 2016 - 4:22 pm

Thanks Mic!

I completely agree that resilience has the potential to draw from many disciplines. I can already think of many topics we didn't even get to address in this article: food security, mobility in rural locations, communication systems...the possibilities seem endless and it is hard to imagine a rating system or standard that could address them all. I'm looking forward to hearing more ways that practitioners find to "broaden the dialog" with their clients and connect with professionals of other disciplines.