The real estate industry can help communities build the resilience to react to the changing climate, according to a panel of architects speaking at ULI’s Fall Meeting in Dallas. In doing so, they said, the industry can create value.

“It’s important that we show to our investors that we have thought about this,” said Heidi Creighton, vice president and head of sustainability for Skanska USA, during the panel, “Demystifying Climate Preparedness: How to Prepare Our Buildings and Cities to Weather Climate Change.” Panelists focused on resilience, identifying possible climate-related harms and acting to reduce risk. Analytic tools and scenario analysis can help demonstrate that a building is prepared to withstand current and projected risks in a given location, she said.

When thinking about the benefits and costs of a project, it is important to place a value on resilience, said Ilana Judah, associate principal and resilience specialist in Arup’s New York office. Don’t think of just the costs of a climate event, such as downtime and breaks in continuity. Instead, think of greater social benefits, too, she advised, noting that anyone designing or developing a new building should be focusing on how its resilience supports the community.

Panelist Rives Taylor, a principal at architecture firm Gensler, said that North Americans generally have accepted the reality of climate change, but just one in five think we are prepared to protect against the effects. He cited his company’s survey research, which also found that most respondents had taken some action individually, such as consuming less or keeping cars longer.

Indeed, resilience starts at the individual level, said moderator Lindsay Brugger, vice president of ULI’s Urban Resilience program. The panelists all cited personal experiences that have raised their awareness. Just living in Houston, “between hurricanes, drought, plague, and pestilence,” requires resilience, Taylor said. He was involved with one local project that has had to recover from three tropical storms.

Judah recalled that in 2012, she was supposed to compete in the New York City Marathon. Instead, she spent the day helping clean up after Superstorm Sandy. And Creighton added, “I live in Southern California, so it’s the wildfires,” when smoke makes it unhealthy to go outdoors.

Loose Fit, Long Life for Buildings

Beyond the individual, respondents to the Gensler survey said that they want to see more societal and government action, with a focus on renewable power and energy efficiency. “We need a common plan. We need a community mindset,” Taylor said.

Taylor said that at Gensler, design teams discuss resilience with clients upfront. They ask, “Do you know what you’re facing? And should we be designing for it?” They want to make sure that clients have studied, for instance, the most recent government climate projections. “We’re trying to coach our clients to be more aware.”

Increasingly, architects are thinking in terms of “loose fit, long life”—that is, designs that allow for change, such as future mechanical upgrades. “I think we’re going to see a lot more flexibility,” he said. That flexibility could even extend to location, with modular design and construction that allow a building to be disassembled and moved if, say, flooding hazards became too great.

Some questions from the audience raised specific quandaries. For instance, one Canadian audience member pointed out that just half of rental apartments in Canada have air conditioning—a concern as more frequent, intense heat waves threaten health. How should building owners cool properties while at the same time meeting goals for reduced greenhouse gas emissions?

First, consider passive measures, Creighton and Judah said, such as outdoor spaces. Then take a wider view of the problem. For instance, in a recent Canadian situation, part of the answer was to look at the whole year, not just summer, and switch heating to heat pumps, Judah noted. From an annual perspective, the overall carbon footprint can come down.

An audience member from Santa Clara, California, said that local interest in electric vehicles is high. However, builders are still putting up projects with just a minority of electric vehicle–ready parking spaces. Why aren’t consumer and builder preferences lining up?

The challenge is anticipating future demand, according to Creighton. Perhaps, she added, emerging technology will help, such as charging equipment that can be moved around, rather than fixed permanently to one spot.

“Resilience is ultimately a design opportunity to make communities better,” Brugger said, not just for a few days surrounding a storm or other event, but year round. So, she asked the panelists, what can concerned industry members do?

Share the available information about the role of the built environment, Taylor said, particularly about resources available to improve community-level resilience.

Creighton said, “Set sustainability and resilience goals early in projects.”

Adopt a conservation mind-set, Judah said. Conserve assets, improve existing buildings. Resilience sustainability, and conservation—“they all interact.”