Resilient by Design: Preparing the Built Environment for Climate Change

Ariane Laxo – Published: August 1, 2016

We all spend the majority of our time in the built environment, be it outside in parks or driving on roads and bridges, or inside our homes and offices. But is this built environment prepared for the impacts of climate change? From landscapes impacted by drought and extreme precipitation, to insulation that needs to keep a building comfortable in high and low temperatures, the effects of climate change on our built environment are already evident and will only continue to grow. “We are impacted by climate change all the time, but are not paying attention,” says Rick Carter, Commercial Focus Leader at LHB Corp.

The design and construction industries have been evolving for decades to mitigate climate change, including using rating systems such as LEED. While mitigation strategies continue to play an important role in preventing further climate disruption, adaptation is now entering the sustainability mix. Adapting to climate change requires a built environment that is resilient by design. It must have the ability to bounce back quickly after large climate-related disruptions. For example, when a hurricane takes down the power grid for days, a resilient building will allow occupants to remain comfortable and safe inside, a design standard known as passive survivability.

In May 2014, leaders of more than two dozen leading design and construction industry associations issued a joint statement on resilience. The statement outlined a commitment to designing a resilient built environment through strategies such as educating the profession and advocating at all levels of government. While the impact of climate change on the built environment depends greatly on the region, certain climate trends have widespread implications.

Temperature Increases

When extreme weather events result in widespread power outages, will our buildings allow occupants to remain comfortable in these increased temperatures without power? Can we design landscapes that can tolerate the heat without requiring additional irrigation?

Greater Frequency of Extreme Weather Events

As the temperature climbs, water evaporates more quickly and the air holds more water vapor, resulting in more frequent intense storms. Heavy storms lead to flooding and can displace hundreds or even thousands. But what if we could build a roof to handle heavy snow loads? Do we have storm shelters that are healthy environments for occupants, rather than using shelters that may be cheap to produce but use toxic chemicals in their materials?


The heat sucks moisture out of the ground, drying the ground and causing drought. A lack of water availability for irrigation, building systems and drinking is disruptive to daily life. When a municipality issues a moratorium on water use, will the built environment be ready? When water rises exponentially in cost, what will the impact be on socially disadvantaged communities?

Kevin Flynn, owner of sustainability consulting firm EcoDEEP, says the impacts of climate change are “a triple bottom line disaster,” disrupting our community socially, economically and environmentally. As a disproportionate number of people directly impacted by climate change are in low-income communities, the social impact of climate change is staggering. The economic price of climate change, made evident by extreme weather events such as Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013 and current droughts in California and Central America, is unsustainable and will drive more countries into poverty and debt.

Adapting to the new average temperature cannot simply involve increased irrigation and cooling, and increasing disaster relief budgets. Rather, a combination of strategies will be required for success. At the building scale, a healthy interior environment free of toxic chemicals, combined with passive cooling, natural ventilation and renewable power sources will create a safe refuge in extreme weather events. Landscapes that utilize native, heat and drought tolerant plantings, harvest rainwater and prepare for large water volumes with appropriately-sized stormwater management systems will be better equipped while adapting to these risks. At a larger scale, cities could utilize a community-based energy grid consisting of a wide range of renewables that every building with its own power source would feed into.

The World Economic Forum identifies “failure of climate-change adaptation” as one of the top five global risks for the decade. The current and potential future impacts—and costs—of the changing climate on the built environment are staggering. “We’ve dug ourselves into a hole that we’re struggling to get out of,” said Rachelle Schoessler Lynn, Senior Associate at MSR. There is no silver bullet solution to this problem, but rather a wide variety of strategies and approaches.

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