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Energy Solutions

Resilience as a Driver of Change

Whether or not you believe that climate change is happening, implementing resilient design strategies will make you and your family safer — and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions

Our completed house and restored barn provide a model of resilience.
Image Credit: Alex Wilslon

Readers of this column have heard me argue in the past that resilience can be a motivation for taking actions that will not only make us and our families safer, but also help to mitigate climate change. Let me lay out that basic argument again.

I wrote last week that climate change deniers seek to seed doubt about the realities of anthropogenic causes of climate change — and whether global warming is even happening. As the title of the 2008 book on this tactic, Doubt is Their Product, points out, if these industry-funded “experts” can convince enough people that the causes of a particular problem (whether climate change or hazards of tobacco or toxicity of flame retardants) are in doubt, policy makers can be convinced to hold off on imposing regulations that will cost industry money to implement.

They have succeeded admirably in that tactic with climate change: a large percentage of the public and the majority of legislators from a certain political party believe that the jury is still out.

With decision-making based on science seemingly impossible and new extraction technologies enabling us to extract ever-harder-to-reach oil and gas, what should we do to slow our greenhouse gas emissions? How can we convince people to take action?

The case for resilience

As defined by the Resilient Design Institute, “Resilience is the capacity to adapt to changing conditions and to maintain or regain functionality and vitality in the face of stress or disturbance.  It is the capacity to bounce back after a disturbance or interruption of some sort.”

Designing houses and apartment buildings to achieve resilience will keep people safer in the event of a disaster of some sort — whether a hurricane that might be more intense because of a warmer ocean, an earthquake that has nothing to do with climate change, or a power outage caused by terrorists hacking into our power grid controls.

You don’t have to believe in climate change to want to create safer homes for your family. It’s not a Blue State argument or one that is owned by Democrats. Indeed, I’ve observed that Tea Party libertarians are sometimes the most receptive to the resilience argument. They want to be free from the tyranny of big government, but some of them also want to be less dependent on those systems that are controlled by government — like electricity distribution and national transportation networks.

Low-energy buildings are more resilient

Nearly nine years ago, following Hurricane Katrina, I began advancing the idea of passive survivability: ensuring that buildings will provide livable conditions in the event of extended loss of power or interruptions in heating fuel. That remains a key tenet of resilience and what I have been advancing through the Resilient Design Institute.

To create a building that will maintain livable (or habitable) temperatures if it loses power or suddenly finds itself without heating fuel requires an extremely well-insulated building envelope. The house that my wife and I recently renovated — with R-45 walls, an R-60 roof, and really good windows, along with some passive solar gain through south-facing windows — will probably not drop much below 50°F even if there’s an extended power outage in the middle of winter, and keeping a fire going in our small wood stove during a power outage will be enough to keep us fully comfortable.

In hot climates — whether or not one believes that all climates will be getting warmer — the same argument applies. Energy efficiency measures help to keep homes and apartments from getting too hot if they lose power and air conditioning can’t be used. Overheating in passively operated buildings is admittedly a bigger challenge than keeping them reasonably warm in the winter, but passive survivability in hot climates relies on such strategies as keeping direct sunlight out (especially on the east and west), reflecting sunlight off the roof, and slowing conductive heat gain through the walls and roof.

Safer buildings that mitigate climate change

The same strategies that keep us safe during power outages or interruptions in heating fuel result in dramatically lower energy consumption during normal operation. Our house in Dummerston is heated with a single 18,000 BTU/hour air-source heat pump — a small enough power draw that we can provide that electricity, on an annual basis, with a modest solar electric system.

We can build or retrofit to these passive survivability or resilience standards for safety reasons and, in doing so, we’re doing a great deal to mitigate climate change — but you can disregard that last benefit if you don’t believe that climate change is happening.

Resilience makes sense whether or not climate change mitigation is a goal. I’ve often said that it will be a huge success of the Resilient Design Institute if our arguments are touted by Rush Limbaugh in his radio program — probably unlikely, but not out of the question.

Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. In 2012 he founded the Resilient Design Institute. To keep up with Alex’s latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.


  1. Expert Member

    I wish you had addressed the role of introducing advanced technology into homes a bit more. To what extent is a home resilient if it is does not have a degree of autonomy from both the wider technologies around it, and the need for experts to maintain and service its components, no matter now efficiently it can be run in good times?

  2. Alex Wilson | | #2

    Good point. I should have been more explicit about that. Fundamentally, the resilience in our home is achieved by the highly insulated envelope. It means that a very small, point-source heating system will easily maintain habitable conditions. If the primary point-source heating system fails (and heat pumps are indeed complex) or if the electricity grid fails, a small wood stove can maintain those conditions.

  3. user-757117 | | #3

    Response to Malcolm
    I also think you've raised a good point.
    "Pretty good" enclosures are probably the "low-hanging fruit" in this discussion...
    But how does high-tech equipment contribute to a more "resilient" home if it isn't serviceable except by experts using specialized tools?
    And it is fine and dandy to talk about emergency woodburners in rural settings, but what about the majority of people who live in urban settings?
    And what about water supply?

    I think a problem with the concept of "resilient design" is that it is only as good as the assumptions the designer makes about what circumstances the occupants of the house may have to endure.
    It may be difficult to sell some of the better "resilient design" ideas to a mass market because many people still have a hard time seeing (or believing in) the value of such things.

  4. fitchplate | | #4

    We have had this conversation
    Folks use self-sustaining design/technology, and super-sealing and super-airtight to save money or because they are technophiles. It’s not done to save the planet. Alex, you have the time and enthusiasm to play with these ideas, but nothing you have said makes a convincing argument for anthropogenic causes of global warming.

    You are doing someone else’s dirty work and here is why: you have said basically that if anyone disagrees, they are victims of a well-oiled (pun intended) conspiracy or they are dense, or both. You are trying to make it politically incorrect to have the opinion to deny that mankind’s share (i.e which is <1% of total) of global – total combining anthropogenic and naturally occurring -- carbon emissions can affect global temperatures and change weather patterns.

    That just doesn’t make sense. One season of bad storms, forest fires or a volcanic eruption is an equal contributor. Skeptics of the man-made cause of global warming are not necessarily denying global warming, just the attribution of it to carbon emissions. There are so many other non-benign anthropogenic emissions of environmentally toxic materials the picking on carbon is disingenuous. I suggest it’s those who swallow the bogus and well scripted campaign blaming anthropogenic global warming due to carbon emission that are the true victims of a conspiracy: EPA and Executive Branch singularity driven by a science that is financed and harnessed to protect special commercial and geopolitical interests; diverting public attention from the real issues and toxins.

    You have not made a thinking-man’s case against it. Off-oil and off-coal enthusiasts are really only parroting what ICCC has told us to believe. But the main “element” (another pun intended) in the worlds geopolitical see-saw of power politics and economics is not oil, its nuclear. This nation remains dominant politically and economically for one reason: it controls nuclear technology and operationalized nuclear resources (military and civilian). If any sector has an interest in making you believe that oil, gas an coal emissions are bad for you and your environment, it is those power elite networks of capital, armed forces and politicians who have harnessed the most significant toixin and the most significant risk and what you really need to research if you want to understand the anthropogenic meta-environmental forces changing the earth, and the source of the greatest risk to environmental as well as human well-being and survival.

  5. Expert Member

    Alex and Lucas
    This playing into themes that Martin has addressed a couple of times in his blogs about the contrast between the old time hippy greens and the new Dwell Magazine ones (that's my distinction - Martin was a lot kinder).
    As someone with an interest in how we live communally and wider issues of urbanism and architecture it also touches on what I see as a disturbing trend among one faction of "greens".
    To me there appears to be a convergence of two trends: One the very contemporary detachment from physical world around us which is increasingly mediated by electronic media. The second is perhaps motivated by seeing the damage we have done to the earth and deciding to perch on it lightly and rather than engage it - to view it as scenery through the window.
    I think these have manifested in the well intentioned, spaceship-like, hermetically sealed buildings sometimes associated with Passive Houses. The idea that with enough calculations and technology we can stop the damage and live without doing more. But to what end? Without directly engaging the people and nature around us what is life?
    I live in a very resilient community, but in conventional terms not a very energy efficient one. We all use wood to heat our poorly insulated, leaky houses. We all have chainsaws and access to heavy equipment in the case of emergencies and have the resources available locally to effect any repairs necessary. Increasing the efficiency of our building envelopes would be a great benefit, but adding technological complexity to them serves no useful purpose.

  6. Expert Member

    Does it really matter whether there are increase in abnormal weather events or what their causes are? Surely what we can see from looking at the distant and recent past is that resilience in buildings and communities is always a benefit. Why would you not want to incorporate it as a value in design?

  7. user-757117 | | #7

    Reply to Malcolm
    Yes, this is familiar ground but I like your evaluation...
    I think you are right that there is not much purpose to life if people aren't engaged in meaningful ways with their surroundings...
    That by itself could be a long conversation independent of "resilient design".

    But with respect to "resilient design", as you say, why would anyone not want to incorporate "resilience" as a design value?
    I suspect the answer is that they wouldn't - as long as such design doesn't come at a premium.

    From previous conversations I think you live on the west coast in BC.
    I have a lot of family that live in "Metro Vancouver" (it was the GVRD when I still lived there).
    Being a student of Geography, I know quite a bit about the evidence for the potential of a magnitude 9+ earthquake in the Cascadia region.
    Such an event could happen 500 years from now, or this afternoon, but its impossible to say with certainty...
    So how do people respond to the idea of living on top of a bomb like that?
    They tend to not worry about it - live for the day and brush off abstract concerns about the future.
    I have been bugging my family for years to build little closets of "resilience" into their homes and while they all say to me "Yeah, yeah, earthquake. I know, I know. I'll get to it", they never actually do get to it - and this despite that such preparations are a very minor investment.

  8. fitchplate | | #8

    Flitch plates, lally columns, jack alls and come alongs
    I buy a $60, 48" jack-all to work under my 800 lb zero turn mower. That jack all can lift one end of a six ton shed, get the 4 X 4 off the rocks in a steep ditch, push a 10 x 10 into place on the bridge over the north side stream. Or I can pay $375 for a specialized, dedicated zero turn mower jack. Which one is resilient.

    Resilience is simplicity, inter-operability, stretching a dollar or a tool to achieve many functions. One electromagnetic pulse will bring a Passive Hause and its Mitsubishi Mini-splits to their knees.

    I am big on Alex's attempt at self sufficiency but as you say, Malcolm, isolation and technology will not a robust community make.

    Building "green" (i.e. low energy costs) is a foolish thing to do if its intended to cure the environment. Let's stop pretending. The companies that make and sell us those mini-splits and photovoltaics are not doing it for the environment. If that was the case, solar, wind, geothermal, tidal and off-grid hydro would be affordable (competitive); fracking would be done clean, and natural gas and diesel prices would be reduced to represent the facts of a glut of supply and an abundance of reserves.

  9. Expert Member

    We live with it in two ways. Our building code just incorporated quite strong seismic requirements, so from now on anyway residential construction should e a lot more resilient.
    In personal terms many of us have earthquake kits. Things I assume are misplaced, like my spare rain gear and boots, have usually been scooped up by my wife and stored there. We also have water purification filters and lots of food. But mainly we have good community ties and an emergency regime in place so when something happens we will look after each other.
    If the big one comes I'm sure there is more I could have done, but like anything else you decide what is an appropriate response to a potential threat and decide how much to do. We have had fair warning so I won't be complaining about how things turn out afterwards.

  10. Expert Member
    MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #10

    "Building "green" (i.e. low energy costs) is a foolish thing to do if its intended to cure the environment. Let's stop pretending."

    Perhaps perversely, it is exactly that sanctimonious attitude of "being part of the solution" that makes me resistant to a lot of the green building movement.

  11. user-757117 | | #11

    Reply to Malcolm
    I'm glad to hear you take the earthquake risk seriously enough to have at least thought about it and to have taken some personal steps, but I wonder how typical your response is?

    With respect to changing building codes...
    It is interesting that people must often be forced to adopted a higher standard, where such standard is assumed to be in the public interest but not-so-much in short-term individual economic interest.
    Seismic structural requirements for buildings, seat belts in cars, no smoking in restraunts, passenger oxygen equipment in airplanes; none of these make any "economic sense" in the short-term (ie, in a truly "free market" none of these things may have come to pass).
    While I think you're right that adding complicated high-technology to homes can make them less resilient, technology is a centrepiece of cultural reverence for "the economy".
    I think the real story here is cultural - economics, being the strongest cultural force of our time, marginalizes other competing cultural ideals and biases individual perception of risk.

  12. Expert Member
    MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #12

    It's not only individuals who are remiss. My sister works for the regional government here and when they toured the emergency preparedness containers that had been carefully positioned in Victoria's downtown they found them full of old toasters and Kleenex!

    I think you are bang on in your observations about the role of economics,which now pervades all aspects of our lives. I notice that people at local community meetings here commonly identify themselves as "tax payers" not "residents" or "citizens".

    While building innovation may be driven by individuals, all the significant improvements in the way houses are built here have come from being mandated in our codes.

    Finally, Martin's blog on his trip to Montreal got me thinking about the distinction between resiliency and longevity in buildings. Alex is right that improving the efficiency of a building's envelope makes it more resilient, but a lot of the techniques currently being used to do so have no, or negative consequences for the longevity of the structures. Whether that is a bad thing is another discussion.

  13. wjrobinson | | #13

    Alex definitely has a home
    Alex definitely has a home that can whether cold temperatures and the end of electricity or use off electrically powered devices.

    You guys are on quite a tangent gents... EMP? OK, if we get to that day... whatever... life leads to death boys... also over worrying to me makes life not worth living. To each his own.

    To get in a different mood... Elon Musk, check out some videos of his.... a tour of SpaceX. What a great place to work and play instead of thinking about how to survive an EMP.

    Learn to hang glide, sky dive.... that's living... looking down at a death slap into earth... then pull a rip cord... and float on down.... alive most of the time. Fun.

  14. fitchplate | | #14

    Get a life ...
    ... spend spare time and even more on GBA

  15. wjrobinson | | #15

    Scottish Oak Flitch
    and spare time fun

  16. user-1123197 | | #16

    thanks Alex
    Thanks Alex for bringing up the connections between building design, resilience, and climate change. I feel like it's a conversation that we need to have more often, and more thoroughly. It's a shame that so many of the comments have devolved into distractions or inanity.

    I guess my interpretation of your advice is to: 1) reduce your needs and 2) then establish several ways to meet those needs, in case one or more of those ways becomes unavailable during a crisis.

    Designing our homes and other buildings and infrastructure for resilience is crucial, but I would add that developing and maintaining relationships with friends and neighbors is also a crucial component of resilience. In our affluence many of us have stopped needing to rely on others for help and support. In the not distant future there may come a time when we will again need to rely heavily upon each other, and those of us who have maintained our neighborly interdependent relationships will be better positioned to make that transition than those who have come to rely primarily on the marketplace to meet their needs.

    Also, to those talking about reducing energy consumption, or doing this or that to "save the Earth" -- can we PLEASE stop using this phrase? The Earth doesn't need saving. It's the human species that needs saving -- that's what this is about. The Earth will be fine with or without us. The urgent work to reduce our demands on the planet's systems is not about altruism, it's about enlightened, long-term self interest.

  17. Expert Member
    MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #17

    I agree the debased slogan "Save the Earth" has very little direct meaning. To be fair most people use it as a catch-all to express their concern not only for the planet itself but also the other parts of nature that currently surround us. A dispassionate realization that the earth itself will survive without us neglects that all the things around us that we love may not.
    While we both seem to be putting our eggs in the same basket of developing good community ties, a brief look back at human history leads me to the dispiriting conclusion that individuals that aggregate large amounts of resources may have a very successful strategy too. Societies' elites have rarely allowed catastrophes to interfere in any meaningful way with their lifestyles. If enlightened self-interest, not altruism, is the motivation, for an individual greed may be just as good a response as conservation.

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