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Affordability for All: How Resiliency and Sustainability Go Hand in Hand

Margaret Montgomery

The frequency and severity of weather events is increasing, and so are their impacts to the built environment. Conventional solutions are no longer working, and disaster recovery costs have escalated — 2017 was a record year, with costs topping $306 billion dollars in the U.S. So what can we do? How should we prepare ourselves for changes in the climate?

These are new questions arising from changing conditions, and regulatory and practice standards are only beginning to catch up and provide consistent guidance. At the same time, development budgets are as tight as they have ever been, and finding additional financing to address a potential future risk is often challenging.

There’s no question that some resiliency measures are outside the normal cost of development, but the good news is that some of the smartest things we can do are already underway in the realm of sustainable design.

For resilient design to be relevant and useful, a little research and analysis is necessary:

  1. Know the hazards. What are the most likely scenarios to happen in your location? A good place to start for a regional overview is the National Climate Assessment 2014 (soon to be updated at the end of 2018). The US Climate Resilience Toolkit is rich with planning guides and climate projection tools, and many high-risk cities and regions have developed plans, such as San Francisco’s climate action plans.

  2. Understand your organizational risk tolerance. Are there gaps in your current infrastructure or operational procedures? Based on the hierarchy of hazards and what you do, which are the highest priority gaps or concerns for you to address?

  3. Investigate options. Typically solutions will include both operational planning and also infrastructure and facility issues. While you’re planning a new project or renovation it is the right time to address these and get clear on the implications.  You will likely identify a list of desires longer than you’re able to achieve. Prioritization is a necessary part of planning — and a plan can include immediate, short term and long term actions.


What’s learned through this research can be applied to design to find innovative solutions. The good news is that the best foundational measures don’t represent investments in anything except a thoughtful, intentional design process and some good sustainable design strategies. For instance:

  • Plan for future climate. Discuss appropriate planning horizons with your design team, and decide how far out to consider weather patterns, instead of relying exclusively on historic weather data. Rainfall and flooding projections as well as temperature are changing, and you’re investing for the future. In addition to storms and severe events, daily temperature changes are also in the works — you may have systems that should be prepared for adaptation or augmentation. Know what that might look like, and which components of your building need to be viable in that time horizon.


  • Passive design strategies never go out of style. Demand design that suits your place, and consider widening your thermal comfort band — the best thermal envelope for Alaska is not the same as Los Angeles, nor is it the same as Baltimore. Rely on the sun, wind and seasonal conditions to create a base level of comfort that requires less outside energy. The great news is that better passive design reduces system sizes, energy demand and costs.

  • Plan to isolate and minimize need during a crisis. Especially for those critical facilities that must continue to operate during a crisis, less water and energy means less cost to maintain operation, and if you can operate only a portion of your facility it’s much more manageable. For two new hospitals in New Orleans, LEED Silver equivalent design means that the facilities can meet their own energy and water needs for up to five days without outside assistance during an emergency.

  • Recreate nature’s functionality. We’re paying a significant penalty for the extent of the concrete and hard surfaces we’ve accepted as normal — they hamper ecological function, create heat islands and exacerbate the risk of flooding. Low-impact development is less costly to begin with, and can help restore natural patterns that will reduce impacts in extreme weather events — while creating truly enjoyable and health-giving environments for people.

  • Networks are resilient. A networked system is more responsive if one node goes down than a large central system. While the scale of most urban development isn’t conducive to net-zero energy onsite, the development of micro-grid networks for energy and water systems to distribute risks in neighborhoods or on campuses might make a lot of sense. 


In the effort to be fully prepared for what may come, there will certainly be specific and directed emergency accommodations, as well as special measures you may need to consider to weather the coming changes, but the sustainable design measures identified here will bring benefits every day — rain or shine.

Margaret Montgomery, LEED AP, is Director of Sustainability at NBBJ.

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