Charting a Path Towards Building Resilience

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In 2004, Hurricane Ivan slammed into the construction site of the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman Hotel. What was intended to be an idyllic tropical getaway was instead occupied by 16 feet of standing water. The owners filed $180 million in insurance claims and had to push back construction by a year and a half.

While the hotel did manage to open, it stayed in business for less than seven years and was eventually purchased at foreclosure by Five Mile Capital Partners. The new owners had a choice to make: would they simply renovate the hotel and reopen it, or would they also make investments in the long-term infrastructure of their new property? Their decision would likely be the deciding factor on whether or not the hotel could survive another disaster like Hurricane Ivan.

Five Mile Capital opted for resilience. They upgraded the existing emergency generator for the resort to incorporate a cogeneration facility. Using cogeneration, the Ritz Carlton saved $300,000 per year on electricity costs by generating their own power. As an added bonus, it has the ability to seal and dehumidify its buildings for 30 days during the event of a large storm.

Five Mile also constructed a wall and planted acres of mangroves, which both help to reduce beach erosion. This also provides both the resort itself and its electric generators with a buffer from storms. Together, these benefits reduced insurance premiums and mitigated the risk of lost revenue due to an inoperable resort.

Resilience in the built environment

These infrastructure investments are good examples of what is known more generally as resilience. Perhaps, though, there was more they could have done. It likely would have saved a lot of time and money were these improvements to have been built in the first place.  

Though this issue may sound like a purely economic one, it raises a philosophical question. How can we, as a society, become less susceptible to the stressors and shocks before they happen, so that we can enhance our ability to “survive and thrive,” as Heather Joy Rosenberg, Director of the LA Resilience Initiative, put it. We would need to align the interests of communities and businesses for mutual benefit. These ideas bring us to the concept of building resilience.

We would need to align the interests of communities and businesses for mutual benefit.

Acute shocks, like earthquakes or floods, often require a bold, immediate response that municipal programs are hard pressed to handle. Pervasive stressors, like inefficient public transportation or high unemployment, are equally critical to address, both from the perspective of business and communities. Changing the face of the built environment may at first seem like an insurmountable task.

Today, unlike in 2004, there are a number of programs that cover aspects of resilience. On the environmental front, we have learned from programs like Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), a green building rating system developed by the US Green Building Council (USGBC), which has shaped the designs and construction of 11.4 billion square feet of space in more than 150 countries over the last 15 years. Where LEED mostly focuses on environmentally friendly new construction, building resilience is more focused on making the community as a whole more robust.  

Rebuild By Design is a program aimed at fostering resilience at the community level.  After Superstorm Sandy, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development began this program that focused on integrating components of economic, environmental, and social resiliency into new building designs. It is now a model for other local and federal programs aimed at rethinking regional resilience.

On the corporate side, social responsibility programs have been gaining traction for some time. These internal corporate programs try to systematically assess and take responsibility for the company’s effects on the environment and local communities.  

A guide to building resilience

In an effort to spear head the integration of these concepts for Southern California, the Los Angeles Chapter of the USGBC began work on The Los Angeles Building Resilience Guide, an initiative aimed at enabling projects in the built environment to address social, economic, and environmental resilience in ways that help prepare all Angelenos for varying levels of shocks and stressors.

Because building resilience lies at the intersection of economics and community health, it manifests itself in a variety of ways, including business continuity insurance, corporate social responsibility, and sustainability engineering. The guide is a framework that enables companies that own or operate buildings to implement high-level processes to economically incorporate resilience.

The guide focuses on buildings as infrastructure hubs as well as centers of human activity and interaction, recognizing building owners as leaders in the arena of resilience. It aims to facilitate the incorporation of resilience into all aspects of business operation by identifying sets of available tools, developing the skills and leadership potential of companies and community stakeholders, and helping to implement and maintain resilience strategies over time. The BRLA Guide is rooted in the belief that effective management of existing building resources and community engagement are the critical, cost-effective means of implementing resilience.

A resilient community is more than just prepared for disaster—it is elastic, dynamic, and interconnected. It creates good jobs and opportunities. It increases access to critical resources like telecommunications and electricity, while expanding services like transportation infrastructure.  Resilient communities foster mutually supportive networks that surpass government initiatives, fostering social cohesion and security at the neighborhood level. Resilience is more than a concept for surviving disruptors–it is a framework for improved prosperity, a way for communities and businesses to thrive.

The BRLA Guide was developed by the LA chapter of the US Green Building Council with the help of Seed Consulting Group, a non-profit consultancy that works with environmental and public-health groups to aid them in their quest to bring about a cleaner, healthier, more beautiful world.

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Michael Abrams serves as a writer for Seed Insights. He joined Seed in 2016 and has previously served as a consultant and project leader. Michael is also a Ph.D student in the department of Biology at the California Institute of Technology, where he uses jellyfish to study self-repair, sleep, and primitive behaviors.
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