Picture a so-called “green” building in a floodplain. Now picture a storm-hardened home guzzling gas like there is no tomorrow.
For me, neither of these conjures up an image of true sustainability.
By virtue of being built unconsciously (or defiantly) in harm’s way, a building is not durable and thus not (in my book) sustainable. Similarly, a disaster-resilient building belching out greenhouse gases that any scientist worth their salt will tell you is contributing to present and future natural hazards is not sustainable.
Substantial, but largely unconnected efforts have been made for decades on energy-efficiency (and self-generation) and disaster resilience. We have developed an arsenal of methods for making buildings energy efficient and otherwise environmentally responsive. And we have an equally large arsenal for making them disaster resilient.
Both can be done in tandem, but rarely are, thanks to society’s deeply ingrained ability to stove-pipe subjects that they deem unrelated.
Recognition of this the need for an integrated approach has been coming from an unexpected quarter: the insurance industry. Zurich, for example, has noted that “Unfortunately, disaster resilience is not generally associated with being green, and has not been integrated to any great extent in the sustainability dialogue. ... Further research on the links between disaster resilience, energy savings and off-grid power systems might also help solve this conundrum…” Other insurers have given premium credits for buildings that have self-generation (recognizing that so-called 'business-interruption' losses will be lower following grid outages).
This thinking can be applied at a neighborhood and regional level as well. Tokio Marine insurance (one of the largest in Japan) has for more than a decade run a large-scale program to reforest mangrove forests. They’re replanted almost 20,000 acres of mangroves in Indonesia, Fiji, Thailand, Philippines, Myanmar, Vietnam, and India and claim that this has simultaneously offset their own corporate carbon footprint while also lessening the impacts of storm surge on coastal real estate.
Examples of how energy-efficiency can support the goals of disaster resilience--and visa versa--abound.
Efficient envelopes make homes more habitable when the HVAC goes down during power outages, and are less susceptible to ice dam damage. Distributed power systems can keep the lights on when the broader grid is down. LED exit signs are more visible through smoke. Closed-cell foam insulation can withstand water and flood damage far better than fiber-based insulation materials. Occupants of efficient buildings are less vulnerable to health problems during heatwaves.
While in Australia this month I met with building officials providing advice during the reconstruction effort following massive wildfires in 2009. They have developed a five-step level rating system for fire risk on residential properties, and corresponding building requirements that get progressively more stringent with the hazard. Interestingly, the most cost-effective way to comply with their most stringent requirement for windows is multiple-glazed tempered glass.
This perspective could advance the whole discussion of non-energy benefits in the energy policy community. Myopic cost-benefit analysis often applied to energy-efficiency projects typically ignores benefits such as improved safety. Accounting for energy savings attributable to disaster-resilient measures would vastly help their economic case.
Of course, disaster resilience and energy efficiency don’t always go hand in hand, and each deserves to be pursued in their own right. But if we can collectively recognize the rich synergisms it will help advance both of these practices and give us a building stock that is truly more sustainable.