Resilient Design: Why Buildings Should Be Designed for Change

By David Bainbridge

One of the best antidotes to climate change is rarely discussed. Buildings in the U.S. generate 40 percent of the global warming gases and use 70 percent of the electricity. If we do things right, we can cut energy use 90 percent in new buildings and 70 percent in retrofits while improving comfort and health. In new buildings, this may be done at no cost if integrated resilient design strategies are adopted. We can improve comfort, productivity, how students learn, health and security, often at no added cost.

Passive design utilizes the building’s form, orientation, windows, thermal mass and materials to accomplish many energy and resource needs rather than relying on importing energy (electricity, heating oil, natural gas, firewood or coal) to the building. These techniques work not just for natural lighting but also for heating, cooling, ventilation, on-site electrical generation and water collection and storage. We describe this approach to building metabolism in our book, Passive Solar Architecture (Bainbridge and Haggard, Chelsea Green, 2011). It can be done most easily with new buildings but many very effective retrofits have been done as well, often cutting energy use by 50-70 percent.

In addition to effectively combating global warming and improving our built environment, passive solar architecture can create buildings that are less brittle in storms like Hurricanes Katrina, Irene and Sandy, earthquakes, terror attacks, wild fire and wind storms. Better design can insure that people are safe and secure even when the power goes off. When the next Great California Earthquake occurs, it will leave large areas without power for weeks. If it is midsummer or midwinter, many people will die and tens of thousands will be miserable. With a small PV system and rainwater harvesting, people can do even better in emergencies, with their own power and water.

Passive solar buildings can remain comfortable and functional even when the electrical grid and other services are down. This is in great contrast with so many of today’s buildings that are unusable without their umbilical connection to the grid. These buildings are like people on an iron lung. Many don’t even allow natural ventilation because they have sealed windows. They are addicted to electrically powered heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.

Why does our society have such a blind spot in regard to this important approach to confronting global warming and problems caused by climate change? Why have regulators failed to adopt these principles? Why have the Energy Commission, PUC and DOE failed to embrace these ideas? Perhaps its because we have lost our common sense. Perhaps it has been the millions spent on disinformation by the fossil fuel lobby and the utilities. After all, it is not in the interest of energy utilities make buildings better. It would be like asking oil companies to invest in electric cars…

[Image credit: eversion, Flickr]

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