Op-Ed

Bouncing Forward from Disasters

Finding opportunities in the spate of recent devastating natural disasters.

January 5, 2018

The Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, designed by Perkins + Will, has operable windows in all patient rooms, a critical feature in the case of a power outage in hot weather. The triple glazing and higher-than-normal insulation levels not only mean that the building will maintain habitable conditions if it loses power, but those features also make it more sustainable.

Photo: ESTO / Anton Grassl
In re-reading the feature article I wrote this time last year for The BuildingGreen Report after President Trump was elected, 20 Ways to Advance Sustainability in the Next Four Years, I was reminded of just how optimistic—indeed quixotic—I can be. Perhaps it is this serial optimism that has allowed me to keep at it some 40 years after I first became interested in renewable energy and sustainable building.

I was grossly wrong (or at least grossly premature) when I suggested that Trump might wake up to the realities of climate change and the urgent need to address this looming crisis. If anything, his actions, and those of his administration, have been even more extreme and more harmful than we had braced ourselves for as they work to undo years of negotiations and policy-making to address global warming.

But that doesn’t mean that there can’t be a silver lining—that something good can’t come out of these dark times. My colleague, Nadav Malin, made this point in his article Opting Out of Paris Accord Fortifies Global Warming Battle in which he showed how states, cities, and corporations stepped up to fill the void when Trump abdicated global leadership on this issue.

It is with this in mind that I reflect on some of the natural disasters of 2017 and the opportunities that can emerge from them. Rather than just bouncing back from such disturbances, we can bounce forward.

Since Hurricane Harvey hit the Houston region with record rainfall—over 50 inches in some areas outside of the city—we are seeing renewed interest in zoning bylaws that govern where and how we build in this sprawling city. In developing such regulations, Houston has an opportunity to go beyond the usual environmental provisions, including safeguards related to flooding, that most zoning provides. We have learned a lot about the good—and bad—that municipal zoning achieves. In creating comprehensive zoning from scratch, Houston has an opportunity to adopt the good stuff and skip the bad stuff. All too many municipal zoning ordinances, for example, prohibit mixed-use development and the sort of density that makes public transit viable; Houston can do better.

In the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, some parts of Puerto Rico are now leapfrogging the conventional power grid to create more resilient—and greener—distributed power grids powered by renewable energy. A recent article from our managing editor, Nancy Cohen, Building Industry Helps Disaster Victims Recover, describes efforts to bring renewable energy to the island to power resilience hubs, and there is growing interest in creating buildings that will function reasonably well without power—the strategy of “passive survivability.” That idea was discussed with representatives from Puerto Rico during a special roundtable meeting of government officials and legislators about resilience that I participated in during the Greenbuild Conference in Boston this past November.

The communities in California leveled by wildfire pose a different challenge. How can one create residential communities in regions prone to wildfire in a way that doesn’t feel too sterile? Experts have long argued against building in the “wildland-urban interface,” but some of the municipalities so affected by the September wildfires, including Santa Rosa, were not in that interface area. They still burned. Finding solutions to this quandary will require concerted effort from the smartest landscape architects, ecologists, architects, and planners. We don’t want to live in gravel parking lots from which the last sprigs of vegetation have been removed. But I believe that creative solutions are possible that will enable those vulnerable California communities to end up better off than they are today.

The Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston (the tallest building in this photo), designed by Perkins + Will and completed in 2013, is right on the water, but designed with myriad features to deal with potential flooding. For example, all the mechanical and electrical equipment is located on penthouse floors or the roof, and the entire first floor can be flooded without causing lasting damage.

Photo: Steinkamp Photography
While earthquakes didn’t affect the United States significantly in 2017, the same cannot be said of our southern neighbors in Mexico. Seismic design practices that have been implemented in the past 30 years in Mexico (since a devastating 1985 earthquake that killed 10,000 people) prevented the September 2017 Central Mexico earthquake, with a magnitude of 7.1, from killing a whole lot more people than the 370 who died.

But the continued seismic upgrades required for buildings could be expanded to address other performance issues—improving energy performance, for example, or addressing how to ensure continued functionality of a building following an earthquake, rather than simply ensuring that people can get out safely. This sort of seismic resilience is the goal of Arup’s REDi Rating System that was incorporated into the LEED Pilot Credits on Resilient Design—which are about to be integrated into the RELi Rating System (see USGBC Announces RELi as its Resilient Design Rating System).

If climate scientists are to be believed, the relentless onslaught of storms and fires could be a harbinger of what is to come. Very soon, resilience planning will become an overriding priority for policymakers, planners, and design professionals. Yes, let’s figure out how to create more resilient buildings and communities that will bounce back from the next disaster, but at the same time let’s carry out that rebuilding in a way that solves our other challenges, like reducing energy and water consumption. Let’s not just bounce back; let’s bounce forward.

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