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A new feature article in Environmental Building News examines how a focus on resilient design could advance green building more quickly than our current focus on sustainability.

Sometimes advancing sustainability feels like pushing a boulder uphill. Are we like a modern-day (benevolent) Sisyphus who keeps pushing the idea of sustainability uphill only to have it roll back down as other priorities grab society's attention?

I thought about this question during a six-week bike trip through the Southwest at the beginning of my sabbatical from BuildingGreen. To be sure, there has been a lot of improvement in building practices over the past few decades. Standard levels of insulation have risen in homes, and windows have gotten better. We're using daylight more effectively. Efficiencies of virtually all mechanical systems have improved. Photovoltaic modules have become more cost-effective.

There are innumerable improvements being made to buildings, but climate scientists tell us that we're only chipping away at the edges. If we are to prevent a climate catastrophe in the century ahead, we need to make far more dramatic progress. Rather than incremental improvement, we need threshold improvement--an order-of-magnitude reduction in fossil fuel consumption. How will we get there? I thought about that a lot in the hot, dry sunlight of Arizona and Texas as I snaked my way across 1,900 miles of gorgeous terrain.

Resilience as a motivation for change

I came to the realization that we need motivation beyond simply "doing the right thing" or staving off climate change--a distant and overwhelming-sounding task. What if people did all this stuff (building carbon-neutral homes and weaning themselves from automobile dependence, for example) not because it was good for the planet, but because of self-interest?

For you and me, that probably isn't necessary. Anyone reading Environmental Building News or perusing BuildingGreen resources regularly is probably already convinced that we need to make these sorts of changes for reasons of altruism. But for lots of other people, that isn't the case. And even people committed to the need for addressing climate change are sometimes overwhelmed by the shear magnitude of the challenge and what can seem like insignificant contributions that they are making.

Drought in West Texas--on my bike trip through the Southwest last year. Photo: Alex Wilson. Click on image to enlarge.

The idea with resilient design is to turn sustainable design practices into necessity in an age of advancing climate change. We need to build ultra-low-energy homes and create bicycle-friendly communities to keep our families safe as a warming climate makes storms more frequent, causes more flooding, knocks out power more frequently, and produces extensive regional droughts.

These are some of the arguments I make in our latest EBN feature article, "Resilient Design: Smarter Building for a Turbulent Future" (requires log-in). The article addresses five general observations about resilience and why we need it, then presents 59 specific strategies in a detailed Checklist of Actions.

By implementing these actions, we can create homes and other buildings that will maintain livable conditions in the event of extended power outages, loss of heating fuel, or shortages of water. We can transition to communities that have strong, locally based economies and rely on locally produced food. We can reduce our dependence on cars so that if political turmoil in the Mideast doubles or triples the price of gasoline, we won't be as affected.

Record wildfires plagued West Texas during last year's drought. Here's the Chihuahuan Desert Museum entrance near Fort Davis. Photo: Alex Wilson. Click on image to enlarge.

These are practical, common-sense solutions that can drive the green building movement, I believe, more rapidly than is possible when we make change only because it's the right thing to do. In fact, due to the life-safety benefits, some of these measures could actually be incorporated into building codes. We require seismic codes in areas prone to earthquakes. Why not implement building codes that will ensure that new houses incorporate enough insulation, passive solar gain, and natural cooling strategies that they will never put their occupants at serious risk should extended interruptions occur in our power or heating fuel supplies?

I look forward to your input. Is this a reasonable argument? We instituted seismic codes after the San Francisco Earthquake and fire codes following the Great Chicago Fire. Is it time for building codes to mandate superinsulation and passive solar design as safety measures, just as we did in response to those other catastrophes?


Alex Wilson is the founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and the executive editor of Environmental Building News. To keep up with his articles and musings you can follow him on Twitter.

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1 Interesting Question Alex. In posted by Jake Vierzen on 03/02/2012 at 05:24 am

Interesting Question Alex. In my ICF construction business, I have noticed a marked increase in the last year and a half in folks who are interested in ICF construction so they will be able withstand disasters both natural and man-made. I think appealing to people's self-interest is definitely a great way to encourage this kind of change. Few people are truly altruistic.

2 First, building codes are mea posted by Robert Riversong on 03/02/2012 at 07:07 am

First, building codes are meant to protect against events that are "immediate dangers to life and health", such as fire or collapse, and rarely deal with less common dangers such as flooding, let alone slow-onset ones such as prolonged power outages.

Second, the concept of resilience, while it's also an essential element of nature's design for ecological sustainability, has more of a reactive connotation: a resilient building is one that can respond to unexpected changes. Designing for sustainability has a much more proactive sense.

Third, until we realize that self-interest requires altruism (they are really one and the same), we will not make the effort to initiate the paradigm shift that is necessary for the continuity of human civilization within the web of life that sustains us and that we must support. It is self-interest (the dominant motive in our culture) which has brought us to the point of collapse, so it will hardly be the means for getting us beyond it.

Resilience is an important principle, but it has value only as part of a larger set of ecological principles to which we must return.

This essay of mine describes how we got to where we are:

And this one describes the role of a mature species within the web of life:

3 We might take a look at house posted by Devon Dougall on 03/02/2012 at 05:39 am

We might take a look at house size along with building materials, insulation type, etc. Larger houses unquestionably are less sustainable, no matter what sort of fuzzy math one might come up with. More materials useage=more area to heat, more embodied energy used and so on.

4 Timely observations as always posted by Charles Brown on 03/06/2012 at 01:40 pm

Timely observations as always!

5 "Rather than incremental impr posted by Tony Marshallsay on 03/11/2012 at 08:23 am

"Rather than incremental improvement, we need threshold improvement--an order-of-magnitude reduction in fossil fuel consumption. How will we get there?"

One thing that is for sure is that we won't achieve this object by making both new build and the existing housing stock carbon-neutral. Of course it would help; but the real heavy lifting involved in reducing fossil fuel consumption will be in tackling that part associated with energy consumption and transportation - and addressing the problem that everybody wants to sweep under the carpet: population.

Why population? Because whatever you do to tackle other issues, if the global population increases by x percent, with the rapid development of the Third World, global energy consumption is going to go up by nearly x percent too. The trouble is: nobody wants to even try to think about the corollary: that if the population were to decrease by x percent, so would energy consumption and fossil fuel burn.

The world economy is presently based on the theory that there must always be growth. More growth means more people buying more quickly-deteriorating or rapidly out-of-fashion "stuff", needing more precious resources (very little other than steel is recycled) and more "embodied energy". Our first priority must be to find a way of getting off this unsustainable bandwagon.

Our next priority should then be to seriously re-examine the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed. When the Internet burns more fuel worldwide than all the airline flights put together, isn't it time to see how we could reduce that? For example: just think how much could be saved by forgetting streaming a movie to hundreds of homes to be shown on home theaters, each with a power consumption measured in kilowatts. Instead, just make one download to the local cinema, for hundreds of people to watch it on a REALLY big screen, just like we used to 50 years ago - with all the social interaction that that involved, too.

Everyone groans about the rising price of gasoline (and diesel, in Europe) but just think of this: if we get past "peak oil" and the price skyrockets, globalization will be out the window because - no matter how cheap the foreign labor (and it gets more expensive year by year) - the economics of transportation halfway around the globe won't make sense anymore.

After that - and some say it should be our first priority - we MUST stop and think seriously how our kids and grandkids will be able to live in the world which we have created by satisfying our own self-interest. If we do, we are in for a really nasty shock, which might just help to push the pendulum to start swinging the other way.

Does all this mean that Building Green, Resilience, Carbon-neutrality and Sustainability are a waste of time (I hate using the much-devalued "S" word but it's necessary here)? Of course not. Every little helps but there's a whole lot more we need to do as well.

6 Tony Marshallsay: " More grow posted by Robert Riversong on 03/11/2012 at 07:15 pm

Tony Marshallsay: " More growth means more people buying more quickly-deteriorating or rapidly out-of-fashion stuff, needing more precious resources".

Charles Eisenstein, author of The Ascent of Humanity and, more recently, Sacred Economics - two of the most important books of this millennium - tells us that, now that we are running out of physical nature and energy to turn into "stuff" for sale, we have shifted to a global service economy to also commodify human relationships.

And he teaches us that we will not make the necessary transition into the Age of Reunion (following our Age of Separation), unless we find ways to return to the Gift Economy in which relationships are more important than monetized transactions. To put his money, literally, where his mouth is, Eisenstein is serializing the chapters of Sacred Economics at ( as a gift to all of us.

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