When prairies burn, they don’t die. The destruction jump-starts an elegant system of rebirth. Species of plants, insects, and bacteria that lay dormant in the soil are brought to life, energized and fertilized by the super-heat of the fire, the super-charcoalization of the burned grasses, and the sun’s ability to penetrate the ground, after the 20-foot-tall (6.1 m) vegetation is gone. Natural selection kept those survivor species viable in the soil as a plan for the future. Life begins again, quickly.

I am an architect, not a scientist or an expert in biodiversity. But I derive great inspiration from the “prairie rules” of survival, particularly when advising clients on how to design their real estate portfolios with an eye toward engineered resilience. That is a request my colleagues throughout the profession and I are getting with increased frequency.

Engineered resilience (as opposed to biological resilience) is a physical thing. And it is next-generation sustainability. That is how we define it at Gensler. Whereas sustainability focuses on the well-being of the planet (with significant ripple effects for human well-being and long-term operational savings), resilience adds adaptability and the protection of human life to that definition.

 

Why Resilience? Why Now?

 

We are living in an era of climate uncertainty, predicted rises in sea level, and terrorism (all of which have exposed deep vulnerabilities in our built environment and infrastructure), as well as something exquisitely calculable: risk management.

Getting a company’s bricks and mortar into a more resilient state does not guarantee that damage from a hurricane, tornado, flood, or manmade provocation will not happen. But it does speak to managing risk and, most notably, the risk to human safety. That is of paramount importance. But there also is the risk of business interruptions. When a building has to be shut down because it is unsound or inoperable, the company suffers both an immediate loss of revenue and a more fuzzy—and perhaps more insidious—loss of reliability in the eyes and minds of clients.

Risk management gives companies both the right lead-in to talk about resilience (return on investment is less clear) and a logical category to which to assign it in the budget (capital expenditures and payback are not a good fit). And because sustainability is morphing into resilience, we are finding companies often redirecting their “greening” costs to a broader program of resilience. In terms of numbers, we suggest to clients that getting a base level of sustainability/resilience comes at an expense equal to 2 to 5 percent of a project’s total cost. Companies looking for higher levels of resilience might add an additional 5 to 10 percent.

The challenge to those of us in the business of designing, developing, and operating buildings is to keep resilience human, stopping well short of creating buildings and campuses that look and live like bomb shelters.

Let’s go back to the prairie for lessons in an elegant kind of resilience.

The prairie is an abundant, diverse, amazing thing. One square yard of Texas prairie supports hundreds of plant, insect, and bacteria species. In architecture-speak, abundance equals resilience.

That is exactly how engineered resilience should be approached—not by an obvious “hardening” and dehumanizing of a building, but by designing it to be flexible and adaptable when put under stress. That is largely done by designing multiple redundancies (also known as diversity) into its critical systems for power and water, into a smart envelope, into the site design, and into the building’s connection to the community. If one system or approach fails, another is designed to kick in, and potentially another after that, as part of a well-choreographed response to trouble—like a boxer bobbing and weaving to avoid a punch and remain standing.

Although it is a relatively new term and concept for most people, engineered resilience has a North American history. Think about the way wood houses are built, with framing carpenters placing studs every 16 inches to protect the structure if one stud should weaken or fail. That is redundancy. That is resilience.

Granted, the type of resilience planning we are talking about is likely to be more intrinsic and holistic 21st-century design. The energy company BP, for example, turned resilience into the programming for a new, mission critical–type facility that it built on its Houston campus following Hurricane Katrina (read BP Gets Resilient in Houston). Gensler worked with BP to specifically design the building to withstand hurricanes and their chaotic aftermath. (In addition, the structure generates its own power and harvests millions of gallons of rainwater, groundwater, and air-conditioning condensation a year.)

But resilience can also be achieved effectively in smaller, incremental steps. It could involve something as simple as installing lateral fire-suppression systems (sprinklers), one floor or one building at a time, to bring a campus up to current life-safety standards—and finding a way to pay for it by tucking the expense into interiors projects. That is how the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston made a significant dent in bringing fundamental facility resilience to its entire campus over the course of the 1990s, when I was campus architect and part of the facilities operation leadership for the university.

Resilience can also be a new roof or a hardened information technology line. It can take the form of rooftop photovoltaics or rainwater harvesting to lessen a building’s tie to municipal systems, which might be unreliable in some parts of the country, even on a good day.

The point is that resilience should be fine-tuned to each company and specific to each region; one size does not fit all. And nobody should ride into town after disaster strikes forcing the issue with fast plans for rebuilding.

After Katrina struck in 2005, a number of us who attended Greenbuild—the annual conference of the U.S. Green Building Council—that year (and many of us being architects from the Gulf area) skipped the planned sessions and got to work on laying out a set of guidelines for reconstruction. “The New Orleans Principles” were directed to planners and policy makers and were specific to that city’s environment, economy, culture, and residents. Those principles have influenced disaster recovery and resilience planning around the country by raising awareness and giving everyone a common vocabulary as the future is negotiated.

Resilience planning is all about managing one’s stake in tomorrow, whatever today brings.