Thursday, February 27, 2014——The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) held a briefing on the emerging public-policy issue of resiliency. There is a growing, bipartisan call for urgent action to improve the resiliency of cities, communities and critical systems. Thousands of homes, buildings and other infrastructure have been damaged or completely destroyed by powerful hurricanes, tornadoes and floods in recent years. The severe drought in the Southwest is wreaking havoc in other ways and prompting widespread restrictions on water use.

Is it possible to have “strong” and “green” buildings that withstand hurricane-force winds, conserve energy and water, and remain operational during a power outage? If model building codes help ensure minimum levels of quality, health, safety and energy efficiency in new homes and buildings, why are there so many communities without basic building codes? How can we improve our existing buildings? In this briefing, experts in architecture and building science, risk management, and energy policy addressed these and other questions as well as related pending legislation, community initiatives, and tangible strategies and solutions for improving the resilience of our buildings.

  • Jake Oster, Deputy Chief of Staff and Legislative Director for Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT), said that increasing energy efficiency in buildings is one of the best ways to address climate change and lower electricity bills. He said there is broad and bipartisan support for energy efficiency efforts, as both parties see that efficiency makes good business sense in addition to having environmental benefits.
  • Oster noted that the Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency bill was reintroduced in the Senate the day of the briefing (February 27, 2014), and that the Better Buildings Act had passed the House with unanimous support.
  • Oster explained the problem of "split incentive," whereby building owners are not incentivized to install energy efficiency retrofits because they do not pay the electricity bills, and renters, who pay the electricity bills, are not incentivized to pay for retrofits either since they do not own the buildings. The Better Buildings Act aims to bridge that gap, by studying the best ways to build out tenant spaces to meet high energy efficiency levels, and by creating Tenant Star, which rewards renters for conducting energy efficiency efforts.
  • Cooper Martin, Director of Resilient Communities at the American Institute of Architects (AIA), said resiliency is "the immune system of our nation." When architects design for resiliency they incorporate durability, resource efficiency, and future considerations, such as how a building might be used and how it will be decommissioned. Fifty percent of the solid waste stream in the United States is building waste, so minimizing such waste will have a big impact.
  • Martin noted that on a global scale, disaster-related losses are increasing across all regions. It has become clear that our buildings are neither resilient to our future climate nor even to our current climate. Many buildings today not only fail to meet aspirational targets like fortified Resilience Star or LEED, but are below the most basic housing codes.
  • Martin concluded that the fundamental challenge is that resilient systems are typically diverse and redundant. On the other hand, efficient systems are focused and eliminate redundancy. There is, therefore, a tension between greater efficiency and greater resiliency. The role of government is to ensure that this balance does not skew too far toward efficiency in the short term, which could lead to collapse in the long-term.
  • Debra Ballen, General Counsel and Senior Vice President of Public Policy at the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS), described the IBHS research center in Richburg, South Carolina, where they simulate natural disasters (wildfire, hail, rain, wind) and examine their effects on buildings built to different codes. For instance, they found that when testing local Illinois codes against a Midwest-style storm, the home was wrecked.
  • According to Ballen, strong buildings are green buildings. If a building isn’t built to resist storms, its remnants will end up in a landfill. Likewise, a building catching fire will likely be doused in environmentally toxic chemicals. Making buildings stronger and more resilient will lessen such negative impacts on the environment.
  • Ballen noted, however, that some of the stronger buildings they tested cost 10 times as much as the weaker ones. Builders must take into account the long-term benefits that strong buildings offer, and not focus on short-term savings.
  • Ballen concluded that to have a sustainable community, all its homes need to be built to strong standards. When hurricane Ike hit Texas, the IBHS-certified Fortified for Safer Living homes were among the last homes still standing in Galveston. But these homes were no longer in a community, as all the buildings around them had been destroyed. Federal incentives to promote resiliency could hopefully assist more homeowners in making their homes more resilient.
  • Ryan Meres, Code Compliance Specialist at the Institute for Market Transformation (IMT), said energy codes often are overlooked when examining building codes for resilience, but they have impacts: for instance, a well-insulated and well-sealed house can maintain comfort for a longer period of time in the event of a power outage or weather event.
  • Meres explained that in order to improve the resilience of buildings, research on resilience needs to be incorporated into baseline building codes. Such codes are generally adopted at the state level, but 11 states have either no codes or very outdated codes.
  • Meres stressed that builder and homeowner education is very important for improving resiliency. Unfortunately, building departments are under-resourced, and there is not an adequate training system for building officials.
  • In a recent IMT study, Meres said they found that the major barrier to code adoption is fear of increased construction cost. Meres said that stakeholders need to know what the benefit of code adoption is, to understand what they’re paying for and why it's worthwhile. He said this information must be tailored locally, since risks vary by region.