Resilience: the new design imperative

Do not build or retrofit without it, as market and climate changes have turned it into as much a must as insurance and readiness.

By Richard Cuebas, AIA, LEED-AP

For a concept that has burst onto the architecture and engineering world with such a vengeance, few business people, developers and homeowners know exactly what resilience means, and how mission- and life-critical it is to design and plan for it.

Webster’s dictionary defines resilience as “the ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.”

It’s probably a good idea to read that again, in case you glossed over it lightly, because lightly is definitely NOT the treatment you want to give this matter.

Resilience today must become part of everyone’s risk management, or the ability to prepare for certain changes and dangers that may happen in the near, mid or distant future, and will cost you dearly if you did not plan adequately.

That said, notice Webster’s brilliant distinction between misfortune and change, and let’s look at the former first — for the sake of this story, the physical misfortunes that happen to buildings and properties.

Preparing for the unpredictable

We have always bought property insurance to protect against these risks. You pay insurance today to reduce what you will pay for damages later, when they happen. Resilience, on the other hand, entails steps you can take today to reduce the damages, so the total cost to you AND your insurance company will be substantially lower.

In real estate, construction and urban development, resilience has become an absolute imperative, courtesy of the growing severity and frequency of extreme weather events. Ask residents along the Atlantic coast from Florida to the Carolinas, hit by Hurricane Hermine this past weekend (TV coverage pictured above), and the coastal cities facing rising seas during the year, and the inland regions facing all manner of climate challenges.

It is today’s new normal, and just as insurance and reinsurance companies are suffering from an onslaught of weather-related claims, and passing on those costs to you by way of higher premiums or simply by refusing coverage in certain areas, so has this made it all the more critical for you to consider what you can do to become far more resilient.

And that’s just the physical-misfortune part. “Change” risks might strike even harder, perhaps more permanently, for here we’re talking about such seismic market transitions as real-estate bubbles, urban redevelopment, and new technologies that displace older ones along with the companies that produced them and the communities that depended on those companies. Other market risks include demographic shifts that change entire neighborhoods and with them the customer base you built your business to serve, and lately, the sharing economy, which as I explained in this recent post, entails a rapid shift to services like Airbnb and Uber that may force you to repurpose some of your real-estate assets.

We know these unpredictable market shifts happen all the time in every single market, just as we know we will be hit with a flood, forest fire, tornado, hurricane or drought. We pay consultants to deal with the former and buy insurance for the latter.

Design for the unexpected, because it’s now expected

But what about design? Upfront for new properties, retrofit design for existing ones. As the Managing Partner of an architecture and engineering firm, this is the sort of challenge that keeps me up at night. At Integra, resilience is now one of the pillars of our core offering, the others being performance and livability, because we have seen the difference smart resilience can make in helping you, as the Webster’s definition says, recover from and adjust easily to misfortune and change.

When a natural disaster strikes, your resilient property and business will suffer less physical damage and business interruption than your competitor, because you designed with permeable sidewalks and more surrounding green areas to minimize flooding, with off-the-grid capabilities in case your utility loses power, and with windows that not only keep thermal heat out to save on air conditioning, but can also withstand stronger storm gusts.

Uber is growing in your area and you are suddenly carrying empty parking spaces? No problem. You can adjust easily, because you designed your parking structure to be repurposed in case that happened. In fact, as designers with future resilience top-of-mind, we can sit with you to explore a range of market risks your property may be vulnerable to and design for ease of transition.

Crunch the numbers, as you do with insurance and any expense, and you will see very quickly what a no-brainer-investment this is, particularly with an architectural and engineering approach that folds resilience seamlessly into your design.

But wait, there’s more

There is one other dimension of this equation that can make your properties and developments more resilient, and that is the people side. We all have, or should have, an emergency-readiness plan in place, with all our stakeholders fully briefed in case disaster were to strike. Likewise, HR departments are trained to help executives and employees “recover from and adjust to” market transitions that threaten to make today’s skills and business models obsolete.

That’s all part of human resilience, to be sure, but there is another angle just as important. Human resilience is also about becoming tight-knit as a community, knowing each other, helping one another. And while design firms like ours normally focus on the physical structure and do not enter this realm, at Integra, we do, with a unique kit of educational and training tools you can use to build human resilience of various kinds. More on that in a future post.

Posted on September 7, 2016 in Architecture, Buildings, Education, Engineering, Infrastructure, Urbanism

Share the Story

About the Author

Richard Cuebas is co-founder and Vice-President of Integra Design Group, Managing Member of our Charlotte office, and leader of the firm's Sustainability and Interior Architecture practices.
Back to Top