Resiliency and Sustainable Buildings

I recently attended the Façades+ Conference in New York and came away both daunted by the challenges and lifted by the possibilities for the built environment. Our buildings are being challenged more than ever by increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. It doesn’t matter if you are in Duluth, Minn.; San Diego, which has an increased risk from fire; or Miami where you can go wading, while shopping during high tide.

The recently published National Climate Assessment concluded that the Southwest will fry, the East will soak and Alaska will keep melting. This report detailed how climate change is already disrupting the lives of Americans more powerfully than scientists had expected. This increase in extreme weather events is causing government planners and construction supply chains to rethink their strategies. Regardless of why you think these changes are taking place, they’re real, and we’d better get ready for them.

Lloyd’s of London doesn’t need to be convinced of the reality of climate change. Their landmark Climate Change and Security (PDF) report began by stating, “As climate change takes hold, few businesses will be able to escape the impact of greater competition for resources.” New approaches to strategy and operations, supply chain and market interdependencies, planning and approaches to risk management are clearly in order.

How does this relate to building envelopes?

New York City planning models, primarily based on historical assumptions, could not have predicted seven major power outages within the last decade. Hurricane Sandy, alone, caused over $65 billion of damage in the U.S. with particularly severe destruction in New Jersey and New York. What would have happened to the millions of people who were stuck in buildings where none of the systems worked if temperatures after Hurricane Sandy had been extremely hot or cold, instead of mild? Very few secondary strategies, such as generators and passive resiliency systems, exist in today’s buildings. How long would it take before people bake or freeze, and which building types perform the best?

Atelier Ten, a leading environmental design consultant and building services engineering firm, recently conducted a study for the Urban Green Council entitled “Baby It’s Cold Inside.” They researched how buildings in New York City protect their occupants during severe weather that causes blackouts, and the habitable temperature ranges across building types in different seasons. They predicted, “In the near future, heat waves will last longer and bring higher temperatures more often” with continued power failures “during severely hot or cold weather.” The study concluded that high-performance, all-glass buildings perform much better than single-family houses under these conditions.

To protect their occupants, it’s essential that high-performing buildings have high-performance windows and glazing, fewer air leaks and good insulation. Cecil Scheibfrom the Urban Green Council told the Façades+ Conference’s “Energy and the Envelope”workshop that New York is committed to and can reduce the carbon footprint of its buildings by 90 percent by 2050, a rate consistent with long-term climate stability. He informed participants that curtainwall controls air infiltration much better than punched openings and ribbon windows due to fewer interfaces.

The Atelier Ten study also recommended more natural ventilation be integrated into façade design for use during warm weather. (Go figure—even in Calgary, Alberta, you can use natural ventilation 38 percent of the year!) “But to protect all New Yorkers, these resilient, high-performing buildings must become the new normal.”

High-performance, well-insulated façades are necessary to keep people in buildings within healthy temperature ranges during a disaster. But these façades, with appropriate protective glazing, carry extra costs that are often eliminated in the transition from design to construction documents. How can these essential elements of proper building design be retained? Two things need to be done:

  1. Factually state the case for their holistic value and importance, and
  2. Detail how there can be other benefits that offset the cost of these elements. Examples of these offsets are: occupant productivity, rental rates, retained value of real estate, reduced operation/maintenance costs, and energy savings.

Starting from scratch on a new building represents one set of challenges; however, New York City already has a million buildings, most of which will be in service in 2050. To address these buildings requires a much stronger focus on retrofit and the essential performance contribution of façades to building resilience and performance. To put the latter issue in proper focus, consider the statement that Gordon Gill, a founding partner of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, made during his keynote presentation during the conference: “In designing a building, the façade is more important than the site.” That about sums it up.

It’s clear that improved energy efficiency, sustainability and resiliency are required from our buildings on the order of a step-change to reduce their carbon footprint and protect occupants against increasing climatic and weather severity. Such buildings will protect occupants against what we hope will never happen, while providing healthier indoor environments everyday. Due to tremendous investments by market-leading companies over many years, market-ready technologies are available to implement these objectives.

What’s less clear is whether we have the will and wisdom to make the necessary investments today to prepare for a future that will challenge both building performance, and our decision-making process, more than ever before.