Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Disaster Resilience Part of Sustainability, Too

• April 10, 2012 • 4:00 AM

As the world deals with quakes, storms, waves and eruptions, builders realize that surviving and thriving after these threats are key components of sustainability.

As eco-savvy as the earthquake-prone Left Coast might be, it’s probably safe to bet that going green won’t be the first thing to come to mind when the Big One hits Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, or San Francisco.

Nevertheless, green-building advocates and disaster planners are finding common ground as they try to convince cost-conscious building owners that keeping a building operational after a punishing quake or other disaster makes economic and environmental sense. Developers and architects already earn green-building kudos for outfitting structures with solar panels and energy-scrimping lighting. Now some builders wonder whether keeping a building standing should earn them similar credit.

“If we’re taking a building and putting it on top of an earthquake fault, and if we haven’t considered and evaluated the lifecycle performance from those earthquake risks, I don’t think we can really call a building sustainable,” says Erik Kneer, an associate engineer who works in the Oakland offices of Degenkolb.

Kneer and colleagues at his San Francisco-based firm, as well as other seismic engineers, are starting to promote the concept of resilience — the ability for a community or structure to survive and quickly recover from a disaster — as essential for green building. Any building, after all, represents tremendous amounts of “embodied energy” from extracting raw materials, transporting them, and ultimately discarding them when a building is no longer usable. What happens if it’s destroyed long before its predicted lifespan? All that energy will again need to be expended.

“For green buildings or something that you’re calling sustainable, it doesn’t make sense to call it sustainable if you haven’t evaluated the long-term risks associated with the natural hazards for that building,” Kneer says.

The latest sustainable construction techniques are useless, he adds, if those high-performance systems are placed in a structure that can’t withstand conditions like extreme seismic shaking or hurricane force winds.

“To me, that just doesn’t make any sense,” he says. “It’s like taking a Ferrari engine and putting it in a Yugo.”

While most clients want to know how much money a disaster might cost them, Kneer says a growing interest in corporate social responsibility motivated Degonkolb to create a tool, called Envisa, to measure environmental impacts. Developed by Matthew Comber, Envisa couples information about the long-term environmental impacts of a structure’s building materials with federal data about the likelihood of various hazards. The results illustrate both how costly quake damage can be for a range of building systems, and what carbon dioxide emissions would be associated with recovery and reconstruction of a building.

“For a new building project that’s going for LEED certification, this provides a quantitative basis to justify decisions on seismic resiliency,” says Kneer.

The certification Kneer refers to — Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED — is the widely accepted standard developed by the United States Green Building Council. Kneer, who is LEED certified, sits on the regionalization committee for the USGBC’s Northern California chapter. He wants credits for green building to be more closely tied to a project’s regional context. Along the Pacific Coast, for example, regionalization credits might be based on a building’s seismic performance, while in the Southeast credits might be issued for the ability to withstand hurricanes.

Many regional chapters have advocated for such credits, and chapters can adapt their guidelines somewhat to address regional concerns, but disaster resiliency hasn’t made its way into the organization’s certification rules.

Still, one project has received LEED credit for its seismic performance. Opened last year, the Ray and Dagmar Dolby Regeneration Medicine Building at the University of California, San Francisco, stands on a base-isolation system designed by San Francisco’s Forell/Elsesser engineers. It operates like a car’s shock absorber. When the Big One strikes from the nearby San Andreas Fault, the base of the building will shake with the quake, but components separating the lab above will keep most of the energy away and, hopefully, prevent significant damage.

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. Cutting down on building materials also means cutting down on the amount of carbon emissions necessary to extract, transport, and fabricate those materials.

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.

These features earned the new research facility one LEED Innovation and Design point (a building can receive up to four for innovation and design). A newly constructed building needs between 39 and 51 points to earn LEED Gold certification, which in turn can qualify the building for tax incentives and other assistance.

“The sustainability isn’t just the structure itself,” Marusich says. “The base isolation protects all the non-structural elements, all the contents of the building.”

No formal LEED resilience points exist, but the building council is starting to pay attention to how green building practices contribute to resilience. In February, the council released a report with the University of Michigan that focused on how green building techniques may help the country withstand the threats expected to accompany increased global temperatures.

Chris Pyke, the building council’s vice president of research, says he thinks there are elements of resiliency to every category of LEED credit. Though resilience won’t become a category of its own until at least the next round of LEED revisions — possibly three or more years away — the February report reminds the public that the ability to withstand disasters is worth attention.

“Resilience is another dimension to think about while you are pursuing green building,” Pyke says.

Resilience planning isn’t limited to buildings. Many entire communities are integrating sustainable futures into disaster plans, inspired by examples like Greensburg, Kansas, where there has been a particularly verdant recovery after a devastating 2007 tornado.

Jim Schwab, a senior research associate at the American Planning Association and the manager of the APA’s Hazards Planning Research Center helped the Federal Emergency Management Agency study post-disaster recovery 15 years ago, and is working on a revision of that agency’s disaster plan.

“Just going through the exercise of thinking about what type of opportunities you might seize as a community to rebuild a more resilient, more sustainable, safer community after a disaster occurs speeds up the process after it does happen,” Schwab says.

Degenkolb’s Kneer says it’s important not to just focus on buildings, but also on infrastructure. Environmental damage can be wrought by sewage spills, broken gas lines, generator use and other urban earthquake damage.

“The end goal isn’t just X client’s building is resilient,” Kneer says. “The end goal is that we have resilient cities that are up and operational after a seismic event.”

Bill Lascher
Bill Lascher is a freelance writer and multimedia storyteller whose work appears in High Country News, the Northwest News Network, Portland Monthly and other outlets. He focuses on transportation, energy, the environment, history and place-based narratives. Lascher, who has also worked as a newspaper editor and writer, has a master's degree from the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Journalism and a B.A. from Oberlin College. He was also a Knight Digital Media and Convergence Journalism fellow at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. His website is www.lascheratlarge.com.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.