Decoding Design

Want a 'green' building? Build it for disasters.

Posting in Architecture

All the solar panels and eco-friendly paint in the world won't make a structure withstand an earthquake. That's why "resilient" is the new "green" in sustainable architecture.

The United States Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system rewards builders for installing energy-efficient lighting and gray water capture systems. But it doesn't give incentives for building structures that can withstand earthquakes or hurricanes. At least, not yet.

But a growing number of architects and planners are making the case that a green building is one that doesn't need to be rebuilt after disaster strikes, reports Bill Lascher in Miller-McCuneErik Kneer, a LEED-certified associate engineer at Degenkolb, is pushing to align the LEED credit system with regional factors, such as a building near an earthquake fault. The argument? Considering all of the embedded energy that goes into building materials -- the carbon emissions produced by the extraction of natural resources, the manufacturing processes, the transportation to the building site, etc. -- the greenest and the most resilient building should be one and the same.

So when the next sizable earthquake hits the West Coast, for example, a building that meets high seismic safety standards will need less repair than one that, despite meeting high energy efficiency standards, suffers structural failures. (The same goes for a building that can weather a Gulf Coast hurricane, etc., which is why the proposal is to make the LEED points for resiliency regionally-based.)

As an example, Lascher calls out the Ray and Dagmar Dolby Regeneration Medicine Building at the University of California, San Francisco. It sports a base-isolation system designed to absorb earthquake energy while protecting the building structure. Writes Lascher:

It’s not the world’s first base-isolation system. What made it unique, says Steve Marusich, the project’s lead engineer, was that by building a base that could move the system requires far fewer materials than an unmoving base that would absorb as much energy.

In this case, Marusich says, the moving base meant a 43 percent reduction in carbon emissions related to building materials. In addition to requiring less material, the ability to keep the lab operational and limit the need for repairs after a quake means reducing the impacts (and costs) associated with replacing structures and systems that could have been damaged.

As it happens, this building did receive a LEED point for its innovative design, but that's different than codifying resiliency under the LEED system.

Chris Pyke, the building council’s vice president of research, told Lascher that resiliency won't earn its own LEED category any time soon -- three years at the minimum. But he recognizes that it's an important consideration for any sustainable structure.

Resiliency isn't only important in buildings, but infrastructure, too. “The end goal is that we have resilient cities that are up and operational after a seismic event," Kneer said.

Via: Miller-McCune

Image: U.S. Geological Society

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure