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Designing Houses and Communities To Be Smarter and More Resilient

Resilient design is about making smart choices, such as where we build and how we protect against damage from flooding

Posted on Dec 29 2011 by Alex Wilson

As we look to create homes and communities that will keep us comfortable and safe in a world of climate change, terrorism, and other vulnerabilities, there are a handful of strategies that I group loosely under the heading of "smarter design." Some of these strategies come into play more at the land-use planning scale, or are relevant only in certain locations that are at risk of flooding, but all are worth thinking about when planning a new home.

Where we build
Following Hurricane Katrina's flooding of New Orleans in 2005, I got involved in an effort to guide the reconstruction that would occur — shifting it towards more sustainable practices. But the very idea of spending billions of dollars to rebuild in a place that is already below sea level at a time when sea levels are projected to rise seemed a mistake. I wrote at the time:

"In many respects, New Orleans should not be rebuilt in its present location — a lowland bowl situated between a lake and a river channel where this largest of America's rivers forms its delta. ... Serious consideration should be given to the idea of relocating the city to stable land, either somewhat inland from the coast or farther from the delta where it can be better protected. But there's almost no chance of that happening. New Orleans will be rebuilt where it is. Our nation has learned a lot in its 200-plus years, but we're neither that smart nor that bold."

We need to keep this discussion active. Whether it's about low-lying coastal areas prone to hurricanes, river floodplains in the Midwest that seem to flood every few years, or valley towns in Vermont prone to flash floods, we should be asking ourselves why we continue to rebuild in places that will again be damaged by flooding.

And it's not just flooding that should concern us. Each summer, when we read about wildfires in the fire-adapted chaparral country of southern California, we should ask ourselves why we keep building in places that keep burning. The frequency of those wildfires is expected to increase as climate change dries out that part of the country.

While we may not be able to change land-use laws to fully restrict building in places prone to flooding, fires, and other disasters, we can certainly make those decisions on our own — and not build in vulnerable places. While suitability for development is still often gauged by the 100-year flood elevations, we should be even more conservative and avoid places that are in the 500-year flood elevation. While Vermont's valley towns are attractive, we should build our houses and roads well above the valley floors. We should try to shift people from the Midwestern river floodplains to higher-elevation areas, increasing density in those safer areas through infill housing.

Elevating living spaces and equipment
In any area remotely vulnerable to flooding, elevating the living space above the potential flood elevation will dramatically reduce damage in the event of flooding. As is commonly done in coastal construction, ground-level spaces can be designed to be inundated with water and dry out. Break-away panels can also reduce damage in the event of flowing water — as in a flooded steam or river.

Basements should be avoided where there is risk of flooding, but even when flooding isn't a concern, it makes sense to elevate all mechanical equipment above a concrete-slab basement floor. A burst water pipe or the failure of a dishwasher or clothes washer can dump thousands of gallons of water that will find its way down to the basement. Elevating boilers, furnaces, water heaters, electrical panels, and any other equipment can dramatically reduce damage. It just makes sense.

Wettable materials
Just as we should elevate equipment so it doesn't get wet in the event of a flood, in locations where flooding could conceivably occur we should use materials that can survive wetting without significant damage. Paper-faced drywall, any kind of wood flooring or subflooring, and wall-to-wall carpeting, for example, should be avoided in finished basements.

Instead, consider polished concrete slabs as finished floors, metal studs for interior frame walls in basements, insulation materials that can get wet and dry out (such as rigid mineral wool and polyisocyanurate), and fiberglass-faced or non-paper-faced drywall.

More compact homes
Building smaller houses makes sense for a lot of reasons: less resources to build them, smaller footprint on the land, and less energy to operate. From a resilience standpoint, if power is lost for an extended period of time or heating fuel becomes scarce or supplies cut off, smaller houses are easier to keep safely warm in the winter months using a wood stove or gas-fired space heater (some don't require electricity to operate, because they have pilot lights and pezioelectric-powered thermostats).

I'll get into more on minimizing heating and cooling loads next week — and why that's such a critical resilient design strategy.


In this resilient design series, I'm covering how to improve the resilience of our homes and communities, including strategies that help our homes survive natural disasters and function well in the aftermath of such events or other circumstances that result in power outages, interruptions in heating fuel, or shortages of water. We'll see that resilient design is a life-safety issue that is critical for the security and wellbeing of families in a future of climate uncertainty and the ever-present risk of terrorism.

Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.


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  1. Charlie Boswell
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