Green Building: Climate Shift and Resilience

Let’s get this out of the way early. There will be no debating the existence  of God or Climate Change or Keith Richards’s longevity on these pages. God, Climate Change or Keith don’t care if you believe in them or not. A 2017 report by the Universal Ecological Fund suggests that the total costs attributed to the consequences of climate change could cripple the U.S.  economy, with over $300 billion going to the recovery from historical folly. And that’s just our economy.

In the evolution of homebuilding, we haven’t been able to rest too long on the laurels of green building. Climate change has accelerated the urgency to think beyond mitigating the sucking up of resources for building dwellings and to start focusing on how homes are going to survive the inevitable consequences of an angry Mother Nature. In this case, “sustainability” has been eclipsed by “resilience,” even though it could be argued that resilience is a key component of sustainability. But as it was with  green building, the clue that resilient building is actually “a thing” comes from articles appearing in Builder Magazine, not the most liberal of publications. The August 2016 issue highlights building to suit the rather hostile climate of Arizona, where temperatures rose to 118-degrees on June 19, 2016, and which was actually balmy compared to 128-degrees, the highest ever recorded in Arizona in 1994. Of course, as we all know, it’s a dry heat.

Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005. On May 4, 2007, the small town of Greensburg, Kansas was flattened by an F-5 tornado. This year, 2017, brought the wrath of Nature in the form of wildfires, hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and droughts. All of these phenomena occur around the globe every year, but this year brought intensities that, like our political environment, were unprecedented. The devastation from these natural disasters has wiped out entire islands, regions and major cities, and none of these tragedies fall outside the predictions of climate scientists. Science, that discipline that runs theories through a process of fact-checking and peer review, has been warning of such an environment for decades. And that’s just the majority of the scientific community. Long before that, individual scientists and others warned of the consequences of human activity on the planet. in 1896 Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist building on the work of American scientist Samuel Langley determined that cutting the CO2 level (in 1896) would lead to another Ice Age, and doubling it would raise the global temperature 5-6 degrees Celsius. He was, however, counting on this rise in temperature to take thousands of years, and to eventually benefit humans, presumably using the same logic as current deniers touting the advantages of a longer growing season in Alaska.

In the case of Greensburg, tragedy became opportunity in the rebuilding of the community. While tornadoes in Kansas aren’t what one would call an apparition, the likelihood of a repeat performance didn’t warrant rebuilding the town underground. It did, however, give birth to the idea that when virtually starting from scratch, the design parameters should include energy economy and healthy buildings. The team that eventually got involved in the rebuilding of Greensburg was still operating on the tenets of green building rather than resilient building, but there certainly can be an overlap in design criteria. Benchmarks for design included those from the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Program. The town now boasts that its electricity use is “100% renewable [from wind] 100% of the time.” Beyond buildings, this small town developed an impressive, comprehensive sustainability plan for the town that covers virtually every aspect of a town’s profile from buildings to the power grid. By the way, it doesn’t take total devastation to encourage such a shift in direction. Georgetown, Texas has committed to going 100% renewable energy, not because Al Gore said it was a good idea (although he and the Mayor have struck up a friendship, much to the presumed dismay of many of the citizens), but because, like so many of the components of green building, it just makes good sense.

Today, in 2017 and in the wake of the very real climate-change-enhanced events, resilient building is becoming in many ways the logical evolution of the building industry, although you couldn’t prove that by visiting most new construction sites. But we have leapt to an era where preventing the consequences of climate change has moved to surviving them. At this writing, Houston, Texas is drying out ever so slowly from a Category 4 Hurricane Harvey (nearly a third of Houston’s homes are in a flood plain). Florida is reeling from a second hurricane – Irma, also a Category 4 – that was significantly wider than the state, and that took a path right up the center of the state. A third storm – Maria, which hit at a Category 4 – laid Puerto Rico and surrounding islands to waste, and some may not recover. A significant part of Northern California, including the city of Santa Rosa, will be reeling for years from a devastating fire that took out at least 5700 buildings. This comes just five years after the Waldo Canyon fire took out entire neighborhoods in Colorado Springs. Unfortunately, the “opportunities” from increasingly powerful weather events are going to be with us from now on.

There are ways to avoid some of the tragic outcomes we’ve witnessed. Not building in flood plains would be one. These areas may have at one time been at risk only once in one-hundred or five-hundred years. Now, the chances far exceed those lottery-esque odds. It would also seem a good idea not to build nuclear power plants on fault lines – we have four in the U.S., in California, New York, Washington and Arkansas – or within the reach of tsunamis. Better building codes would be another. New homes in the Houston area recently benefitted from stricter building codes. After Hurricane Andrew turned Southern Florida into a vast landfill, a scene I witnessed less than a week after it hit, building codes were changed to give buildings at least a fighting chance against “normal” hurricanes. Of course, that was before “normal” went out the window. By now we should be anticipating the possibilities lying before us, and begin to rethink how to avoid the worst case scenarios. If that means relocating an entire town, like was done in Valmeyer, Illinois after devastating floods there, so be it. Yeah, I know. Sounds so simple.

We might also want to rethink our infrastructure options, particularly regarding the power grid. In the aftermath of these tragedies, technology can lend an immediate hand. Solar electricity can get critical services back on line. But if each individual home, or smaller scale communities were powered by distributed energy (read: solar electric), entire cities and regions would not necessarily be taken down with complete disruption of essential services. After the total devastation of Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria on September 20, 2017, most of the island is still without electricity at this writing, which translates to essentially no infrastructure, including providing drinking water. To offer assistance, and no doubt to demonstrate the possibilities, Tesla put 700 solar panels on the ground in eight days, getting a hospital back on line. It’s a small piece of a huge problem, but it was quick and effective on an island where, after a month of virtually no power, it was a life-saving effort.

Small-scale power options don’t require herculean construction projects, or multi-year regulatory processes, and as shown by the Tesla example, can get things operational in a relatively short time. Thinking longer term (which takes a bit of effort), building structures and communities to withstand the act-of-God du jour will eventually become part of the “new normal” of the building industry, allowing us to get back to “normal” as quickly as possible.

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