A Push For Green Buildings That Can Withstand Natural Disaster

Nov 16, 2015

A Brattleboro nonprofit that promotes sustainable building design says green buildings should be able to prove that they can stand up to natural disasters, especially those associated with climate change.

Alex Wilson has been working for more than three decades to promote energy efficiency and environmentally responsible design. From his small office in Brattleboro he publishes Environmental Building News, which was the first North American publication focused on green building.

Environmental Building News is published by Building Green, a company Wilson founded in 1985 to support and offer consultation to the green building industry. He also founded the Resilient Design Institute, a non-profit organization, to bring more discussions about resilient design into the green building industry.

Wilson says builders, architects and designers need to think more about how green buildings will be able to stand up and better perform when faced with natural disasters.

"This came out of a cascade of problems that have happened over the last decade, from Katrina, to Sandy to Irene here in Vermont, demonstrating the need for more resilient buildings," Wilson says.

The U.S. Green Building Council has a rating system that determines just how green new buildings can claim to be.

But LEED certification, which is the most widely accepted system for determining if a building is "green," doesn't look at how a building can withstand power interruptions, drought, mudslides, floods or fires.

Wilson introduced three new credits into the rating system to ensure that resilient design is considered when design teams go through LEED certification. The LEED Steering Committee has agreed to try them out on a pilot basis.  

"Some of what we're doing in this, is really breaking new ground. And one of the real roles of this is to get these design teams working on projects, going through LEED ratings, to be aware of how to make that building more resilient." - Alex Wilson, president of the Resilient Design Institute Board of Directors

"Some of what we're doing in this, is really breaking new ground," Wilson says. "And one of the real roles of this is to get these design teams working on projects, going through LEED ratings, to be aware of how to make that building more resilient. So even if they don't earn those credits, merely looking down the list of LEED credits that can be earned and figuring out what it would take to get there, really opens up the door and gets people thinking about this stuff."

Wilson says climate change is increasing the possibility of natural disasters. He says that for a building to be truly green, designers should prove that they are aware of the vulnerabilities and address the risks associated with the disturbances.  

Under Wilson's suggested structure, designers would receive LEED credit if they do a climate change assessment, design for the top hazards, or build back-up survivability systems to withstand power outages, water shortages or the loss of heating fuel.

Alex Wilson founded the Resilient Design Institute to encourage designers to consider catastrophes brought on by climate change when designing buildings.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Wilson says the decision to test the new credits follows more than two years of work, as well as the time it took to convince the national organization.

He says by bringing resilient design ideas into the sustainable building industry, designers will be expected to consider how their buildings will function in the event of long term interruptions.

He says designers will be asked to consider the impacts of climate change, and design for enhanced resiliency.  

With the approval of the LEED Steering Committee to test the new credits, Wilson says the national design organization will be collecting input and possibly incorporating resilient design features into the green building approval process.

He says it will likely be at least three or four years before enough designers test the system and provide feedback to see if Wilson's ideas should be included in the LEED rating system.