This article appeared in the summer issue of Urban Land on page 75.

Imagine that your recently completed sustainable waterfront development opens to fanfare, but the new glass storefronts facing the bay are soon boarded up in anticipation of a hurricane. Winds of 100 miles (161 km) per hour, strong rains, and tall waves soon will be pounding the new jewel in the crown of your portfolio. Where does the water go? How long will it take to reopen the facility if it is compromised by flooding or debris? And how long will it take for insurance claims to be processed?

Now consider the value that advanced design thinking would bring if that same facility had integrated hurricane shutters, flood drains, cisterns, or any of the countless resilient design strategies available to a project team. With the right mix, that same property might be open for business within days instead of months, with fewer insurance claims, and filled with occupants breathing a collective sigh of relief. Those who have any interest in the property and in the community would be more secure, and commerce would be more quickly restored to normal.

Disastrous scenarios and the nagging “what ifs” that accompany them are recent reality for Texas, Puerto Rico, Louisiana, and California. Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, testified before the U.S. Congress earlier this year that an estimated 47 million people—15 to 16 percent of the U.S. population—were asked to shelter in place, forced to evacuate, or faced with losing their homes because of last year’s storms, floods, and wildfires. Developers and designers together must anticipate the devastating effects of the “once-in-a-100-years event” that in 2017 all happened within a matter of months. We must respond to a changing climate that makes these events more frequent and poses a greater risk to everyone on the planet.

The insurer Munich Re estimates that over the past 30 years, weather-related catastrophes cost more than $1 trillion in North America alone—an average of more than $34 billion per year. Insured losses increased from $9 billion in the 1980s to $36 billion in the 2000s. The Rockefeller Foundation estimates that it costs 50 percent more to build back after a disaster or crisis than it does to build from the start to withstand the shock. Many insurers, including Munich Re and Lloyds, now consider resilient design when assessing premiums. And business continuity is strengthened in buildings and developments that mitigate climatic hazard. Less time spent “bouncing back” means more time conducting business as usual.

Beyond Sustainability

It is no longer enough to build to “sustainable” standards. In fact, because it pertains to reduction, conservation, and comfort, the word sustainable is a misnomer. While the goals of sustainability are worthwhile—even essential—something that is truly sustainable must endure under duress. Resilience seeks to do just that, to withstand the stress inflicted by hurricanes, high water, wildfire, earthquakes, drought, or heatwaves. Most important, it means working with—as opposed to turning away from—the natural forces that persist long before and after projects are built.

As a community of developers, owners, architects, and engineers, we have come to embrace sustainability as both the “carrot” and the “stick” when it comes to new construction and renovations. We create greener buildings because they perform better and owners and tenants want to associate with them. In many municipalities, a level of sustainability has become mandated through code. We have platforms for benchmarking sustainability, and awards for it, too. Resilience, however, rises to a higher and even more crucial level.

In many cases, resilience and sustainability overlap. For example, using renewable energy such as solar or wind obviously cuts down on a building’s reliance on fossil fuels (and thus reduces its energy bills). It also allows a building to maintain basic or mission-critical operations—emergency lighting, server back-up, life-support systems—depending on the building’s use during a crisis. The benefits are threefold: social, economic, and environmental. The same case could be made for graywater reuse: it saves on utility bills, conserves potable water, and can keep plumbing systems operating—at least in part—when other systems fail. The greenest building designed and constructed, though, may not be completely resilient if not conceived considering the specific climatic and socioeconomic risks that are anticipated for its site.

Incorporating resilience can involve complex system adjustments. Alternatively, it can be done through seemingly simple design moves that generate complex benefits. For Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital just outside Boston, for example, the Perkins+Will design team elevated the first floor of the building one foot (0.3 m) above the anticipated flood plane of the adjacent river. This move, undertaken during the design development phase, keeps egress for occupants out of harm’s way. And moving critical building systems to the roof keeps them safe and dry, and the building functioning longer. The structure also uses landscape as a natural buffer to potential flooding in addition to other strategies. What seems simple can have complex benefits.

Scale Matters

Resilience at the building scale is important, but the most resilient structure cannot exist as an island in a community that does not support resilience standards. In the case of historic rainfall, a building that does not flood keeps its occupants safe, but the neighborhood may completely flood. If transportation options are limited, assistance to occupants as well as evacuation efforts are hampered. Consideration for resilience must “scale-jump” to be applied at the building, campus, or neighborhood level, and then to the civic or regional scale, if resilience is to work continuously to maximize safety and functionality.

But resilience is not one-size-fits-all. Because climate adaptation is intimately connected to specific geographic and meteorological criteria, there is rarely a standard response. And while risks can be common, responses must be hyperlocal. Cities around the world, however, are recognizing similarities in risks and vulnerabilities and are sharing best practices. Incentives for private development, infrastructure upgrades or replacement, and working through social-equity issues all serve the goal of more livable, more resilient communities.

In 2013, Washington, D.C., set out to plan for a changing climate and to determine the threats relative to the city. At the time, our Perkins+Will team had no preconceived notion of format or content for the plan that would come to be known as “Climate Ready DC.” Instead, we sought to learn from other cities and mine the specific risks and vulnerabilities for climate and geography and to create a wholly specific mitigation plan and response. Now, more than a year after the public launch and following award recognition from C40 Cities (a network of more than 90 world cities dedicated to addressing climate change) and Bloomberg Philanthropies, Climate Ready DC is a blueprint for a more adaptable community, applying multiple system scales and reaching all pockets of the city.

Readiness Blueprint

The Climate Ready DC plan included three specific tasks. The first was a risk analysis undertaken with climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, who is chief executive officer of Lubbock, Texas–based Atmost Research & Consulting, using meteorological, geologic, and hydrological data to understand the most pressing climatic risks. The concerns were narrowed to three significant anticipated risks: extreme heat, extreme precipitation, and combined sea-level rise and storm surge.

The second task cross-referenced the top three risks against the locations of all public facilities and public-serving amenities. Working with the multidisciplinary engineering consulting firm Kleinfelder, the goal was to determine which locations are most at risk during a crisis and which must remain in operation to serve the population. The vulnerability assessment scope included city-owned properties, private health care facilities, transportation elements, and utilities.

Third, with risks and vulnerabilities understood, the team turned to creating the plan. After multiple workshops with city representatives and a facilitated public comment period, the final list of 78 recommended actions was released in 2016. The plan is organized into four topical sections: Transportation and Utilities; Buildings and Development; Neighborhoods and Communities; and Governance and Implementation. In each category, actions are described, related to one of the top three risks, and assigned to at least one agency or utility to lead as well as to support agencies, ensuring a structured collaboration for future work. The final plan also addresses multiple scales within each section—the single building, neighborhood, city, and region.

Each section spells out short- and long-term goals, but the overarching theme is the same: a need to prepare for a changing climate for safety, environmental preservation, and future prosperity.

In the Buildings and Development section, in particular, the city sought to promote more resilient building design and construction for both the municipal building stock and new private development. As in many cities, existing green regulations—from checklist compliance for the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, devised by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), to the International Green Construction Code do not address climate risk, largely because climate risks are location specific and defy a single model code. But Climate Ready DC seeks to revise both zoning and building codes to transform new construction planning and protect building occupants as well as neighboring properties. Action items were also created for existing building stock, studying how the city can facilitate improvements to structures without having to replace them.

Resilient Green

Perhaps of paramount importance to resilience for development and communities is the integration of green infrastructure into planning and construction. Our buildings are inherently and historically inflexible, but nature offers valuable lessons for adaptation and weathering extreme events. These lessons can be applied directly to building design, but they also should influence how structures interact with the environment around them.

Integration of well-designed green space (not just a lawn or tree wells) provides benefits that can include stormwater retention and management, food cultivation, minimization of the heat-island effect, space for exercise and mental decompression, and a buffer from strong weather. Again, cities are leading this charge.

Tåsinge Plads is considered Copenhagen’s first climate-resilient district, based on planning that brings nature into the city. Based on a 2013 design competition, portions of an existing city neighborhood were reimagined in 2014 to combat localized flooding issues related to increased storm runoff. More than 10,000 square feet (929 sq m) of an unused parking lot, paved over time with several layers of asphalt, is now a park that provides social, economic, and environmental benefits. Tåsinge Plads can delay and percolate rainwater from more than 45,000 square feet (4,200 sq m) surrounding the site, watering plant life and replenishing the aquifer. The project demonstrates overlapping benefits of adding public amenity space and diminishing risks from heavy precipitation.

Measuring Resilience

Buildings and neighborhoods that can adapt to shocks and stressors benefit from reduced costs and disruption. And municipal incentives are great tools for encouraging better communities. But they cannot be the only motivation.

Benchmarking resilience has been a tricky conversation in recent years. As noted earlier, climate risks are very specific to the geography and other characteristic of a site, so having just one set of certification criteria can be a challenge. Some programs, however, focus on specific resilience attributes. The USGBC’s LEED for Neighborhood Development certification program provides guidance on master-planned projects with an emphasis on community connectivity, though it does not focus on climate impacts. The Resilience-based Earthquake Design Initiative (REDi), created by Arup, focuses primarily on seismic safety.

In 2014, Doug Pierce of Perkins+Will’s Minneapolis office and the Institute for Market Transformation to Sustainability (MTS) led a charge to aggregate standards for a resilience platform and finance standard. The result, RELi (short for “Resilience List”), was developed through an American National Standards Institute–approved national consensus process and workshopped across the design and construction industry before being released for pilot projects in early 2015. In 2017, the USGBC announced the late-2018 adoption of RELi into its portfolio of certification programs.

When the USGBC officially launches RELi, it will be the first holistic third-party resilience certification platform openly available. RELi offers a structure for improving resilience for a building, campus, or community. It benchmarks the structure against third-party vetted criteria. It cannot, however, guarantee a project’s level of shock-resistance or safety. The certification, when released, will “measure” a project’s level of hazard preparation and risk mitigation.

The RELi platform acknowledges that a solitary building cannot be resilient without connection to community amenities. It requires an examination of solutions at multiple scales, from a single building or campus to an entire city as a core resilience driver. It also calls out social equity and community connection for “credits” that can be applied in design and operations.
The system recognizes that, when we design, we influence a greater footprint than what is occupied by any single building, and that the greater footprint has a return impact on the building as well.

The prospect of a changing climate and the natural impacts that accompany it must be met by each of us. Resilience means working with—instead of fortifying against—nature and the greater community. Resilience requires us to understand the patterns of how the natural environment works. And it demands that we design a built environment that aligns with those mechanisms for the long-term viability of humanity’s investment.

JON PENNDORF is a senior associate in the Washington, D.C., office of Perkins+Will. TYLER HINCKLEY and ARLEN STAWASZ from the Boston office of Perkins+Will also contributed to this article.