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Towards More Resilient Buildings

More resilient buildings are critical to ensuring the safety of our urban infrastructure. Rendering © Gensler

In the past, good architecture and good design meant something very different than they do today. The play of light, the angle of the sun, and the direction of the wind were the principles that used to guide architects and designers as they first put pen to paper. Over time, these considerations were pushed aside. Today our buildings and our cities are full of mechanically ventilated glass and steel boxes of varying shapes and sizes. These glass and steel boxes no longer care where the sun stands in the sky or from which direction the wind blows; their only concern is providing occupants with places to plug in. The people inside are protected and completely detached from the natural cycles of the world spinning around them. They are ensconced in clouds of technology and encased in a skin of glass and steel.

But what would happen if the plugs were pulled? Could people live, work, and play in those glass boxes if the electricity that powers their technological connections with the outside world suddenly disappeared?

That may sound like grim, post-apocoplyptic scenario, but it is actually a very relevant question considering some notable recent events. In the fall of 2012, Hurricane Sandy slammed into Lower Manhattan, pulling the plug for roughly three weeks. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers went without power, and corporations were forced to retrieve servers from lifeless buildings and set-up operations elsewhere. The homebound went without heat and had no means to relocate. If it were not for unusually mild temperatures in the aftermath of the hurricane, the loss of life could have been tragically significant. Sandy demonstrated the sheer power of the natural world and served as a reminder that the environments we design account for the elements and be capable of performing under the most dire circumstances.

Our buildings should do more than shelter us and connect us to the Internet via a T1 line. They should take the best of the past and marry it with the rapidly advancing technology of today. Our buildings should function as resilient systems, and not because “resilient” has become a fashionable buzzword, but because only resilient buildings can provide safety and functionality in the midst of natural disasters.

As designers and environmental stewards, we understand that a building is never isolated. Every structure we design, from a pop-up store to a corporate office tower, is integrated within a larger system—a city, suburb, or untouched natural environment. Buildings are embedded within complex networks of tangible and intangible relationships, ranging from sociopolitical and economic systems, to emotional and aesthetic considerations. Every building must therefore acknowledge their responsibility as part of these networks.

Contemporary buildings should be living systems. They should creatively use surrounding resources to the greatest extent possible. They should meet their operating demands without damaging the natural environment. They should capture rainfall from rooftops and the vertical envelope to offset the need to take water from other sources. They should harness the unlimited energy from the sun and use it to light interiors and provide thermal radiation and heat. They should leverage naturally occurring wind channels for cooling and ventilation purposes. Even building waste can be broken down and used by natural and mechanical systems. It need not be hauled off to some separate location and dumped into the ground.

Upon first glance, these suggestions might seem unrealistic, but the truth is that we already have the knowledge and the technology to make all of this a reality. If we must plug our buildings in, let’s make it the smallest plug possible. And if for whatever reason, the plug is pulled for a time, let it be only a temporary inconvenience and not a disaster that extracts a costly human or financial price.

We must look beyond the next buzz word. As designers, we have the intuitive toolkit to weave together our natural and built environments in order to create strong, cohesive cities that balance beauty and ecological stewardship.

We must rediscover the principles that once lit our path. Only then can we envision the innovative solutions our clients demand.

Matt Severance is a project architect in Gensler's Dallas office. Contact him at Matt_Severance@gensler.com.

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