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Building Smarter: Resilient Design in New Developments

Let’s be honest: wrapping our minds around climate change and how to mitigate its impact is daunting. Losses mount each year due to natural disasters – from hurricanes and flooding in the east, to wildfires and drought in the west. Physical risk in the built environment can lead to increased insurance premiums, higher capital expenditures, and operational costs that directly and indirectly impact the welfare of many.

So, what do we do?

At the local level, climate change is less polarizing. Leaders from local communities in both the private and public sectors are committed to reducing emissions and forging a more environmentally responsible future (shout out to the “We Are Still In” initiative). The Urban Land Institute (ULI) is a consortium of such leaders.

Dedicated to creating healthy, resilient, and high-performing communities, ULI helps set the table for the multidisciplinary approach required to protect our planet and our economy. Their growing online case study library, Developing Urban Resilience, showcases such projects, highlighting how they proactively consider environmental vulnerabilities in a way that yields a return on investment.

To answer the “What do we do?” question, let’s take a closer look at a few examples from the ULI library.


Know your area: developing earthquake-safe sites

The San Francisco Bay Area is among the most earthquake-prone regions in the United States. Historically, most high-rise buildings in earthquake-prone areas have been designed to Life Safety guidelines, which ensure that in the event of an earthquake, occupants can exit the building quickly and safely. However, such guidelines do not consider time and costs associated with the building’s recovery and return to operation following a seismic event.

The Resilience-based Earthquake Design Initiative (REDi) Rating System was developed to encourage buildings that enable owners to resume building operations quickly after an earthquake while reducing the associated costs of building repairs.

Pursuing REDi certification for 181 Fremont, a 57-story tower in San Francisco, unlocked opportunities that added to the net present value of the building, reduced insurance costs, and helped make the case for high profile tenants to invest in the building due to its ability to come back online quickly after an earthquake.


Flood-prone zones: lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina

As planning started on the new Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, causing deaths from flooding and systems failures in that city’s hospitals.  The development team then had to reassess ways to respond to sea level rise, storm surge, and hurricanes.

To keep patients and their families safe from coastal storms, storm surge, and future impacts of sea level rise, the hospital is built 30 inches above the 500-year floodplain with elevated mechanicals and insulated triple-paned windows. The hospital includes an extensive landscape berm system and is designed to last four days in “island mode” in case of a disaster, thanks to an onsite cogeneration plant.

These investments in resilience reduced operating costs, improved building user experiences, and enhanced the hospital’s reputation, elevating Spaulding’s position in the marketplace. Just last year Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital was recognized as one of the top rehabilitation hospitals in the country by US News and World Report, partially due to it being a national model for environmental and inclusive design.


Improving stormwater management in aged systems

Washington, D.C.’s aging combined sewer system can no longer handle excessive stormwater, causing regular flooding. The city passed legislation to encourage sustainable development techniques, like incorporating green infrastructure in private developments, to bolster the performance of their stormwater management system.

Central to The Avenue, a mixed-use, transit-oriented development, is an attractive publicly accessible interior courtyard, with a water feature that operates with its stormwater management system and uses 100 percent reclaimed water. The building is topped with an expansive green roof that not only absorbs and retains water but also reduces roof surface temperature by approximately 40°F.

Upon completion, the residential building achieved the highest rents in the city for a project of its size and leased up in 11 months. The Avenue has been a resounding commercial success and has become a model for innovative stormwater management.

So, I come back to my initial question: how do we do it?

From where I sit, we do it by looking towards our local leaders and think outside the box about how to incorporate resilience into our development processes in a way that makes not only business sense, but also elevates the quality of life for all who work and dwell within urban environments.

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