Feature Article

Resilient Design-Smarter Building for a Turbulent Future

Resilience is the new green. With decades of green building experience, we are ready to face climate change.

zHome, shown here before completion, is a ten-unit, net-zero-energy townhouse project in Issaquah, Washington, that embodies many elements of resilience.

Photo: zHome

I began an eight-month sabbatical in 2011 with a bicycle trip through the Southwest. I chose the Southwest in part because I wanted to have time to think about some of the vulnerabilities we face—particularly with climate change—and what we should do about it. From what climate scientists are telling us, we don’t have the luxury of continuing the modest pace of green building adoption; we need to achieve greater change, and we need to do it faster. What better way to wrap my mind around global warming and such vulnerabilities as drought and wildfire than a six-week bike trip through the parched Southwest?

Much of the route I traveled had seen barely a drop of rain since the previous fall.

Spring wildflowers were absent. The statuesque saguaro cacti were shriveled from lack of water. Ponds were dried up, and rivers were barren gravel beds. In West Texas, I went through places like Fort Davis amid record wildfires that eventually burned more than 3.7 million acres in the state.

Getting home was harder than planned for a very different reason. Even as Texas was enduring the worst drought in the state’s history, record flooding was occurring in the Mississippi River basin in May, and my train from Houston was cancelled due to flooded tracks.

The West Texas wildfires scorched the area around Fort Davis, including around the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center, which I visited.

Photo: Alex Wilson

Back home in Vermont, we experienced record flooding from Tropical Storm Irene at the end of August. Hundreds of miles of highway and dozens of major bridges were destroyed, and some communities were cut off for a week or more. By August, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), 2011 had already broken a record for the largest number of billion-dollar weather-related disasters in a calendar year.

Then, two months later, an early snowstorm blanketed the Northeast, toppling millions of trees and causing power outages that lasted up to two weeks in places. As we go to press, record cold and snow is killing hundreds in central Europe, while much of the U.S. is hardly experiencing any winter at all.

Below, I describe five insights that became clear to me during my bicycle trip and the research and writing upon my return home. Some of these insights may be unpleasant to consider, but it’s imperative that we think strategically about our vulnerabilities and begin addressing them immediately. Fortunately, there is reason for optimism. With two decades of green building experience to guide us, we have the tools we need to prepare: with a few changes—the most important being a change of mindset—sustainable design can readily become resilient design.

Published February 28, 2012 Permalink