Strengthening Resiliency through Building Design

Vaccinate Your New Building

2021 is beginning with the suite of COVID-19 vaccines. As the world clamors to immunize against the pandemic, we turn to the concept of immunization: comprehensive protection against a particular illness.

It makes me wonder about the idea of vaccines for other purposes. For example, what is the vaccine to protect your building project against wildfires and storms?

I would say immunization begins with resilient structures. We have the knowledge and specifications to design and construct buildings that are resilient to wildfires, that can withstand storms, that can manage rising floodwaters. So why aren’t more building designers taking advantage of this knowledge? Why do we continue building things without immunizing them from harm if we have the means to do otherwise?

Building Codes

When a building is designed, it must conform to building codes. Building codes are sets of regulations governing the design, construction, alteration and maintenance of structures. They specify the minimum requirements to adequately safeguard the health, safety and welfare of building occupants. Note the word “minimum.” Conforming to building code means you are designing the worst building allowed by law.

It is also important to note that your local building code may not be up to date. Building codes should be updated every year to ensure they reflect current science and technology in building construction and operation, but many jurisdictions have codes that are decades old and include very little resilience or hazard-resistant provisions.

The International Code Council (ICC) publishes model building codes, or I-Codes, to provide guidance for minimum safeguards in homes, buildings and other structures. Based on building science, technical knowledge and past experiences, model building codes provide protection from man-made and natural disasters, guarding public health and reducing property losses. Safe buildings are achieved through proper design and construction practices in concert with a code administration program that ensures compliance. Texas, for example, still bases their code on the 2003 International Building Code (IBC).

FEMA released in November 2020 “Building Codes Save: A Nationwide Study—Losses Avoided as a Result of Adopting Hazard-Resistant Building Codes.” In the report they calculated the average annualized losses avoided (AALA) from adopting and enforcing building codes with hazard-resistant provisions. Of the 18.1 million post-2000 buildings that were modeled in the Building Codes Save study, about 51% (9.1 million) showed losses avoided resulting from the adoption of I-Codes. The calculated AALA results were $1.6 billion.

The study says:

“Buildings that are designed and constructed to modern building codes withstand the effects of natural hazard events, including flooding, high winds, and earthquakes, better than buildings that are not. A 2019 study by the National Institute of Building Sciences found that adopting the latest building codes saves $11 per $1 invested. The NIBS study also demonstrates how strengthened building codes for risk mitigation result in financial and economic benefits, which are expected to accrue over the life of buildings designed and constructed according to modern building codes. These benefits arise as avoided losses or savings.”

The losses avoided from just half of new construction meeting the current minimum building code is $1.6 billion. So what loss, savings and risk avoidance could be achieved if we made best use of current resilience and hazard mitigation strategies?

United Nations Resilience Focus

As buildings are designed and engineered, the resilience of the surrounding area needs to be evaluated. Projects can increase the resilience of a community or detract from it. We have seen an acceleration in disasters around the globe. The United Nations reports that over the last 20 years:

disasters claimed approximately 1.23 million lives, an average of 60,000 per annum, and affected a total of over 4 billion people (many on more than one occasion). Additionally, disasters led to approximately US$ 2.97 trillion in economic losses worldwide (CRED-Disaster-Report-Human-Cost2000-2019)

Earlier this year, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) finalized their Disaster Resilience Scorecard for Industrial and Commercial Buildings. In the preface they note:

“Owners, operators and managers of buildings and facilities might be tempted to think that to become resilient, they merely need to address the structural soundness of their building and its emergency procedures. However, a moment’s thought will show that the building cannot be truly resilient in isolation from the rest of the city or region in which it is located.”

The primary purpose of the Disaster Resilience Scorecard is to initiate thought about the disaster resilience of buildings or increase the depth and thoroughness of consideration.

This complements the U.N.-developed Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030, which outlined four priorities for action to prevent new and reduce existing disaster risks:

  1. Understanding disaster risk;
  2. Strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risk;
  3. Investing in disaster reduction for resilience and;
  4. Enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response, and to “Build Back Better” in recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Worldwide, we know there are economic losses from disasters. Worldwide, we know that building codes are not focused on resilience nor climate-caused hazard mitigation.


The U.N. Disaster Resilience Scorecard points you to two programs developed by the U.S. Green Building Council. The LEED rating system provides design professionals with a set of guidelines that go above and beyond building codes. Through LEED certification, project teams learn and implement strategies that improve energy and water efficiency, indoor air quality and increase overall sustainability.

RELi is a certification program to “vaccinate” your building, to go above and beyond building code, to increase resilience against wildfires or storms, with strategies to help. RELi selectively bundles many existing sustainable and regenerative guidelines, including strategies drawn from LEED, FEMA, Fortified, Envision and other leading programs. RELi’s groundbreaking approach for emergency preparedness, adaptation and community vitality equips design professionals to develop socially and environmentally resilient buildings. The RELi criteria include acute hazard preparation and adaptation strategies along with chronic risk mitigation at the building and neighborhood scale.

The need for resilient design is urgent. Societies and structures alike must anticipate weather extremes, economic disruption and resource depletion. Our well-being depends on the cooperative interaction of all elements at work in our lives: social, economic and environmental.

Doesn’t your building project need a vaccination?

Katherine Hammack is a director at Green Business Certification Inc.; co-vice chair of SSPC 189.1, Standard for the Design of High-Performance Green Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings; and an ASHRAE director-at-large.

Categories: Resiliency