For those working in the field of sustainability, we understand inherently that our future is being challenged daily by climate change and environmental degradation. Every new broken temperature record, raging forest fire, or violent storm mock our efforts to mitigate the severe effects of our rapidly changing world. As cities, states, and organizations shift their focus from various mitigation efforts to resiliency efforts, many activists have become even more disheartened, interpreting this as an official loss for the climate change movement.
Alex Wilson, one of the most respected leaders in the field of climate resilience, says quite the opposite. According to this long-time green building activist, founder, and entrepreneur, resilience and mitigation go hand in hand. In other words, if we prepare our built environment to withstand uncertain climate futures, we will create an inherently sustainable system that requires drastically fewer resources.
In the following interview with Wilson, we take an inside look at his history, current projects, and future plans to make this world more resilient – and thus more sustainable.
Alex Wilson is the founder of the Resilient Design Institute in Brattleboro, Vermont, a nonprofit organization committed to advancing practical solutions that can be employed by communities, businesses, and individuals to adapt and thrive amid the accelerating social, ecological, and climatological change being experienced today. He is also the founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. in Brattleboro and executive editor of Environmental Building News. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.
Zach Sharpe: Tell us a little bit about your history: What got you started on climate change work? What triggered your focus on climate resilience?
Alex Wilson: There have been two significant motivations for my focus on resilience. First, following Hurricane Katrina I got involved in efforts to guide the reconstruction that was going to be happening — to make it more sustainable. Besides the flooding, we were seeing a huge area that was without power for a long time. We observed that older homes that were built to be responsive to the Gulf Coast climate, with wrap-around porches that shaded windows and floor plans that facilitated natural ventilation, maintained generally livable conditions, while newer homes, built since the advent of air conditioning, were not livable without power; they got too hot. We realized that Katrina wouldn’t be the last storm causing widespread power outages, and we thought it would make sense for new and renovated houses to maintain livable conditions in the event of extended loss of power. This formed the basis of what I was originally calling “passive survivability,” but am referring to as “resilient design.” I’ve continued to focus on this issue.
The other driver for me has been a recognition that we just aren’t making rapid enough progress in slowing global climate change. Convincing people to change the way we build to dramatically reduce fossil fuel consumption or change the way we design communities to reduce automobile dependence because “it’s the right thing to do” isn’t working. We need another motivation, and I believe resilience can be that motivation. I believe that we can get people to dramatically reduce their energy consumption of their homes because they want to keep their family safe in the event of an extended power outage or interruption in heating fuel. If we can do that, the synergistic benefit is mitigating climate change. Buildings that keep us safe are buildings that also use very little energy during normal operation.
ZS: The future of our climate is foreboding, especially as it relates to extreme weather events and abnormal weather patterns. As we enter an age with an unstable climate, what are the biggest vulnerabilities within our current system?
Wilson: There are lots of points of vulnerabilities that have their origin in climate change. More intense storms and flooding will cause more frequent and longer-lasting power outages. Drought will cause major changes in food production and availability in some parts of the country — pointing to the need in New England, for example, to become more food self-sufficient. Severe prolonged drought can also result in power outages, since 89% of U.S. power generation is with thermo-electric power plants, the vast majority of which require water to condense the steam used in steam turbines. If water levels in lakes and rivers drop too low, those power plants have to be shut down. Most people don’t realize how dependent our power system is on water.
It’s worth noting that we also face vulnerabilities that are unrelated to climate change. The tsunami that devastated parts of Japan was seismic in origin. Terrorists could target our energy infrastructure — the 3,400 power plants in the U.S., the 160,000 miles of high-voltage power distribution lines, and the 3.4 million miles of oil and gas pipelines are all points of vulnerability. Political upheaval in the Middle East could cause shortages of transportation or heating fuel. There is even concern in some circles about “coronal discharges” from the sun that could take out transformers. A report from the National Research Council in 2008 said that if a coronal discharge event as strong as one that occurred in 1859 were to happen today it could cause power outages in some places lasting many months or even years.
ZS: Nearly two months before Hurricane Sandy, you wrote an article about New York City’s (lack of) resilience. What other places – particularly cities – are the most unprepared for extreme weather?
Wilson: I believe that all low-lying coastal areas are vulnerable, especially as sea level rises and more intense storms systems — fueled by warmer ocean and Gulf of Mexico temperatures — cause storm surges. Much of the western U.S. is also highly vulnerable to drought, which I believe will prove an even greater challenge than coastal flooding in the coming decades. I cringe to think about cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Denver if a series of winters with no snow pack in the mountains coincides with record summer temperatures and drought.
ZS: You have really taken a leadership role in the resilience space, especially as it relates to green building. Please discuss how resilient design fundamentals can help homes, commercial buildings, and communities withstand harsher conditions and extreme weather events.
Wilson: Fortunately, we have several decades of experience to draw from in creating highly energy-efficient buildings. Homes and apartments that are close to net-zero-energy or close to achieving Passive House standards will be highly resilient. Here in Vermont we can build homes today that will never drop below 50°F even with no electricity or supplemental heat — simply by virtue of the building envelope and passive solar design features.
We know how to design schools, which often serve as emergency shelters in the event of extended power outages, to incorporate natural daylighting and avoid cooling loads.
We know how to dramatically reduce the water needed to operate our buildings.
We know how to create New Urbanist towns and neighborhoods where we can access all the services we need without cars.
These are all components of green building, and these features can help to keep us safe in the event of extended power outages or other disturbances.
ZS: Most households, communities, cities, and nations aren’t adopting resilient design fundamentals as quickly as they should be. What’s the hold-up?
Wilson: Partly, it’s an issue of awareness. Our underlying goal at the Resilient Design Institute is to change that, to make the case for resilience and educate communities and building owners about the benefits provided by a strong commitment to resilience. I keep hoping that the wake-up calls we’re getting — Katrina, Irene, Sandy, Texas wildfires, Midwestern drought, and so on — will be enough to bring about the needed change in mindset. After Sandy, New York City has established a Building Resiliency Task Force to come up with recommendations for creating more resilient building stock; I’m hopeful that that process will result in some real change. As a participant in that Task Force I’ll certainly be making that case.
ZS: What are the biggest opportunities for entrepreneurs in this space? What specific industries or products promise to make the biggest impact?
Wilson: The biggest challenge we face in trying to make our buildings more resilient is to dramatically improve the energy performance of existing homes. That’s a huge challenge. It will require innovative outboard insulation systems, high-performance window treatments, and other measures like those, and I believe that there is tremendous entrepreneurial opportunities with such products and systems. It will also require innovative financing approaches, the introduction of insurance policies that reward resilience, stronger building codes — there is a lot that needs to be done on many different levels by many different segments of the business community.
ZS: What advice can you give future home builders, buyers, and developers? What resources are out there for those who are interested in learning more?
Wilson: Certainly, keeping up with resilient design issues is an important starting point. I’m hoping that our website ResilientDesign.org will become a leading clearinghouse of practical solutions for achieving resilience. But there are many other sources of information as well. Readers should take advantage of local workshops, conferences, networking gatherings to keep up-to-speed on resilience. The new book, Two Degrees: The Built Environment and Our Changing Climate, written by leading energy engineers with the firm Arup, is a treasure trove of information on what we need to be doing at both the building scale and community scale — with an emphasis on big buildings.
Photo courtesy of flickr user g.sutley.
Zach Sharpe is the lead climate resilience reporter for Sustainable Industries. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.