Six Design Strategies to Achieve Climate Resilience

Here are six design strategies that can protect builders and homeowners from another grid meltdown.

The arctic freeze that struck Texas in February immobilized the entire state. Thirty percent of the state’s capacity to generate power buckled, leaving well over 4 million Texans without power, heat, and water when the storm was at its worst. 

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Homes and power grids in many parts of the country are simply not ready for weather extremes like the cold snap that rocked Texas this year. Photo: Franklin Graham (Twitter), Samaritan’s Purse

The state’s infrastructure system—including workplaces, hospitals, transportation, homes, drinking water distribution, electric power generation, agriculture, and grocery stores—was adversely impacted.

These power losses and freezing temperatures led to a cascading effect in water infrastructure, with approximately 12 million people—more than 40 percent of the state’s population—losing access to potable water. 

Beyond the storm’s impact upon infrastructure, there is also an untold direct and indirect human impact, including deaths connected to exposure, carbon monoxide poisoning, and home healthcare devices that ran out of power.

Climate-Related Disasters Not a Surprise


Smart leak detectors such as the Phyn XL 1.5 can shut off water to a house instantly if a pipe bursts. Credit: Courtesy Phyn

The Insurance Council of Texas warned that this winter storm could result in the most extensive insurance claims in the history of the state. Since 2010, Texas has experienced $68 billion in losses as a result of climate-related disasters, and a great deal of that cost is due to business interruption. 

Many businesses do not carry business interruption insurance. Massive insurance claims drive up future coverage costs, or lead to insurance challenges, as in California after the Loma Prieta earthquake. In Europe, building project financing and insurability increasingly require projects to prove that they are designed and will be constructed to adapt to the increasing impacts of climate change.

Some in the state leadership blamed the disaster on an over-reliance on renewable wind power sources or future green power plans. However, solar and wind energy make up just a fraction of Texas’ energy supply, particularly in the winter. In reality, the state’s widespread electricity failure was largely caused by freezing natural gas infrastructure, coupled with a surge in demand.

The state of Texas is an electricity kingdom to itself, thanks to a stand-alone electricity grid. It normally has plenty of natural gas (and yes, coal and nuclear) for sufficient power. This entire energy network is driven by a partly deregulated entrepreneurial market, apparently with little cross-state coordination. The deep freeze drove apart this balance of market forces, with power plants and water pumps frozen. 

The New York Times pointed out that this breakdown is an indicator of how brittle our energy and water distribution systems are across the country.

The question becomes: What can we learn from this crisis about designing more resilient structures, cities, and infrastructure in general?

Designing More Resilient Infrastructure

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Packed potential. While a significant number of water pipes burst during the recent Texas storm, this happened less in homes that had good insulation in their attics. Credit: Courtesy of Greenfiber

The rolling blackouts and water shortages in Texas, spurred by soaring demand that strained the state’s electrical grid and water lines, serve as a reminder of the country’s fragile infrastructure and the critical importance of dependable power and water facilities and supply chains in an aging urban realm. We need to look to energy-efficient buildings, low-impact materials, and all-electric facilities with renewable power sources to alleviate demand on the grid and, ultimately, to achieve a net-zero carbon future.

At Gensler, our focus on resilience means minimizing the human and environmental impacts of our designs, as well as seeking to mitigate the current climatic challenges to urban quality of life. As extreme weather and climate-related events increase, our design approach must purposefully evolve, adapting to and preparing for a changing world.

Here are six design strategies we can use to achieve climate resilience:

1. Consider Resilience Across Different Scales


The JinkoSolar Eagle TR G4 solar panel can help power a home while reducing its carbon footprint. Credit: JinkoSolar 

Resilience offers multiple impacts via different scales, from homes, offices, or schools to neighborhoods and cities. We can’t separate response to climate from the response to maintain the continuity of our communities or the quality of human experience. It’s this integrated design approach that delivers long-term and resilient urban responses.

To be resilient on an individual or an organization level, and to have some level of control when basic services fail, we must have energy and water independence during a time of crisis. To reduce the stress on our city’s grids, we need to implement passive strategies that leverage gravity, daylight, good insulation, passive ventilation, and more. We need to reduce the stress on our city’s grid, as well as our own on-site energy needs.

Next-generation photovoltaics (PVs) have the potential to harness energy in low light and even from indoor light sources. These PVs, coupled with flexible electronics, can be seamlessly integrated at any scale, ranging from a small device to an entire building.

2. Build or Make New Only When Needed

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Use of existing materials greatly reduces a home's overall environmental impact, and might improve resilience. Credit: Instagram/@kasie_barton

Reusing an existing building or interior space is almost invariably better for the environment than tearing one down and building new, and the same is true for saving an office chair or reusing other materials. Prioritizing material and building reuse in projects whenever possible can dramatically lower the carbon impact of the built environment. 

For UPCycle, a dilapidated warehouse in Austin, that has been repositioned into a creative office space, 95 percent of the existing structure was reused and roughly 1,824 metric tons of CO2 were saved through the process of reusing and reclaiming existing materials.

3. Build Smaller to Reduce Potential Failure Points


Fewer fixtures and systems mean fewer places for failure in a weather crisis. Credit: T.X. King/iStock

Smaller buildings and spaces use fewer materials to create, and less energy and resources to operate and maintain. It’s critical that all stakeholders work together to pursue right-sizing and efficiency strategies—balancing this with a continued focus on creating places that offer a great experience for people.

We learned in Texas that too many rooms to heat or cool or too many sinks to keep dripping draw down our now limited resources too quickly, resulting in dangerously low energy supply and water levels. To reduce the strain on the power grid and our water lines, we can embrace energy-efficient mechanical systems, lighting, and appliances. 

Just the reduction of a few degrees on our thermostat can greatly reduce the strain on the grid. High-performance energy-efficient glazing systems can also reduce heat gain/loss. 

4. Use Low-Impact, Low-Carbon Materials


New magnesium oxide panels are being explored by some builders as an alternative to drywall in flood-prone areas. Credit: Wikipedia

The new materials, furniture, and fixtures we specify on a daily basis each come with an environmental and carbon cost—but those costs are far from equal. Prioritizing low-impact materials across all projects, and continuing to invest in new methods and resources can help reduce the embodied carbon impact of materials. 

By sourcing local materials, we can reduce the long-distance logistics for repair, repositioning, or replacement. It’s important to select fire- and flood-resistant materials as well. Fiber-cement siding, for example, resists wildfires. Tile floors can handle minor flooding. Solid wood cabinets are less likely to absorb water after a flood.

5. Pursue Efficiency Strategies From Day One


Investment in large, elaborate construction projects such as shopping centers and office buildings is on the decline, with financers instead opting for lower-risk residential housing developments.  Credit: powerofforever/iStock

The biggest impact that can be made on any project is at the beginning—from sourcing locally, to prioritizing passive design strategies, to building performance and efficiency targets into projects from the outset. If we design energy-efficient buildings and complement them with renewables, we can use less energy and decrease the demand on the electric grid.

The Houston Advanced Research Center, completed in 2017, survived recent Houston area floods and continued operations uninterrupted due to 100 percent on-site heating, cooling, ventilation, and power from a rooftop PV array. The project was built 10 percent below the market-rate construction cost, and the performance results equate to 76 percent in energy reduction and net-positive energy—a significant cost savings.

6. Work with Climate and Context


Will Texas utilities and home builders take steps to mitigate the next extreme weather surprise? Credit: Bryngelzon/iStock

Operationally net zero or net positive projects are just the start—ultimately, the most sustainable and resilient design solutions are those that work with local climate and context, creating economic, social, and environmental resilience—and increasing longevity through adaptable and flexible solutions. 

The recent crisis in Texas is a wake-up call for climate action. The climate events of the past few years drive home that we must make changes in the way we design, build and use spaces and buildings, putting people-first design at the center of the equation. 

This article has been reprinted by permission. The original appears at Gensler is a global architecture, design, and planning firm with 50 locations across Asia, Europe, Australia, the Middle East, and the Americas.