Resilient Design: Preparing for Disruption

Real Estate and Land Use, Environmental

5/11/2017 by Janet Neuman

Resilient Design: Preparing for Disruption
In January and February, the New York Times ran a series of articles on resilient design. The concept of resilient design is just what it sounds like—incorporating features in the design of the built environment that help make buildings, transportation infrastructure, water and wastewater systems, and public safety networks resilient in the face of natural or human-caused disasters.
The NYT series featured new buildings—from luxury apartment towers to affordable housing complexes—that are being designed with the lessons of Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy in mind. Simple changes can help buildings and their occupants bounce back after disasters. Moving boilers, electrical panels, and elevator machinery out of the basement and up above ground level prevents stranding residents without water and power for weeks or months. Constructing the lower levels of buildings with flood-resistant materials—such as stone on the walls instead of wood—can also help.
I started investigating to see if resilient building practices were catching on in Oregon. It turns out that we have an Oregon Resilience Plan, originally adopted in 2013 and updated in 2015. Oregon's plan focuses singularly on preparing and recovering from a major earthquake along the Cascadia subduction zone. Earthquake resilience planning is critical for Oregon businesses and residents, because the likelihood of such an event is high and the consequences could be devastating. Anyone who isn't particularly concerned about the prospect should read (or re-read) the New Yorker article about the "Really Big One."
It might be hard to get motivated to prepare for a big earthquake—it could happen next week, but it might not happen for many, many years. But other disasters are pretty easy to imagine—especially any tied to climate change. Extended drought, super storm events, flooding, catastrophic fires, and electrical grid disruptions are already occurring and will continue to happen with some regularity. Planning for these events is just plain sensible—and any preparation will also pay off when the Big One does hit.
My investigation also led me to Alan Scott, an architect with YR&G, a firm that specializes in sustainable design and consulting. Alan is LEED accredited and is a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. He's interested in pushing architecture and design beyond sustainability toward resilience. Over coffee, I plied Alan with questions about resilient design in general, and also about what's happening here in the region. There are a number of buildings in the northwest that are built to very high standards of sustainability—extremely efficient in terms of energy and water use, for example—but that doesn't necessarily mean that they're built to survive an earthquake or other disaster. Alan is currently serving on a committee of the U.S. Green Building Council designing resilience standards to include in the LEED certification standards to help correct that situation. He told me about the City of Portland's new Emergency Coordination Center that was designed to provide emergency response without interruption through a major disaster. The State, too, is planning to construct two buildings that can survive a massive earthquake or other event and serve as the nerve center for continuing governmental activities. In fact, that project will be discussed at a program open to the public on May 18.
Alan also pointed me to the Beaverton School District Resilience Plan. Beaverton voters passed a large bond measure in 2014 to build three new schools, including a high school and a middle school, and to rebuild four existing schools. The school district decided to take advantage of the opportunity to build resilience into the planning process. They are designing the schools to be "essential facilities" that can provide immediate gathering places for the community after a disaster. Among other things, this includes designing the power, water, and wastewater treatment systems to weather a serious earthquake. The District said of its plan: "[i]t is imperfect, and will only affect seven of our 50 schools and only seven of the 1,200 public schools in Oregon. But we must start somewhere…"
I couldn't have said it better. Hopefully, Oregon's forays into resilience planning to date represent only the beginning of many such efforts.