Resiliency for Homes in an Uncertain World

How to prepare for the unexpected? Be resilient


In traditional planning and design, we look ahead by looking to the past, despite knowing the future will be different. For example, while we’ve had disasters in the past, the combined effects of climate change, population growth, and urbanization will cause the frequency, size, and cost of disasters to increase. How do you plan for this uncertain future? How do you become resilient?

The disasters of August 2017 were tough, but they provided lessons. The hurricanes in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the rest of the Caribbean, the earthquake in Mexico City, and the fires in California illustrate the diverse challenges that lie ahead. In 2017, more than 4.7 million Americans registered for disaster aid from FEMA, almost 10 times last year’s registration numbers, according to the Washington Post. Looking to 2018 and beyond, we can, and should, look to these disasters to understand what we can anticipate and how to help communities prepare, respond, and thrive.

Resilience is the capacity of systems (people, neighborhoods, organizations) to survive and thrive in the face of stressors and shocks. We need to understand what threats we face, what vulnerabilities make us susceptible, and how we can prepare in ways that make life better today.

An aerial view of areas affected by Hurricane Harvey in Beaumont, Texas, Sept. 1, 2017. The U.S. military and civilian volunteers worked together to help residents in the flooded region and surrounding areas. Members of the 55th Signal Company (Combat Camera), an element of Army Cyber Command’s Network Enterprise Technology Command, documented the Army’s support to hurricane recovery. For more on the 55th’s efforts following Harvey, go to (Photo by Spc. Elizabeth Brown)

Here are some things to consider for any residential project, single-home or multi-family:

Understand the Risks: No project should move ahead without understanding the local risk profile. Is the project in the path of fire zones, floods, or earthquakes? What condition is the infrastructure in? Where do water, energy, and food come from and are there alternative sources? If the risks are clear, imminent, and major, consider relocating or rethinking the project. If not, identify ways to mitigate and prepare for whatever lies ahead.

Bring New Voices to the Table: A strong sense of community can improve quality of life and enable people to adapt and recover from disasters. Local knowledge is important expertise that is often missed by outside “experts.” Every stage in the evolution of the built environment — from land-use planning to building operations — provides opportunities to build community resilience.

Simplify, Localize, and Diversify: During disasters, outside support can be cut off. Imagine what would happen to your project if municipal infrastructure like electricity grids, water supplies, and roads were disrupted. Could your building be occupied without mechanical ventilation? Where would people get drinking water and food? The ability for a building to support its community for 72 hours or more without outside support is known as passive survivability; passive solar design strategies for natural daylight and ventilation both reduce daily energy requirements and ensure that buildings can provide shelter in times of need. Localized sources of energy generation and storage can support critical functions. Alternative water sources, such as municipal reclaimed water, can provide emergency water for drinking or fire suppression. Diverse transit systems and networks can enable access of food and other critical supplies. Consider what resources your project has and how it can become more flexible or serve different functions in the face of change.  Enterprise Green Community’s “Ready to Respond: Strategies for Multifamily Building Resilience” is a great place to learn about physical resilience strategies.

Resilience makes business sense: Integrating resilience strategies can help you build your brand and create value while managing risk. Many organizations have yet to adequately account for risk. According to Institute for Business and Home Safety, at least a quarter of all businesses impacted by disaster never reopen. But organizations that actively build resilience not only mitigate that risk, they also open the door to new opportunity. To navigate the resilience-building process step-by-step, see the Building Resilience Primer for Existing Facilities ( for all project types.

Create Conditions for People to Thrive: During disasters, people rise to the occasion; they become connected to other people, they realize that their actions have meaning and impact, and they feel empowered, often for the first time. These types of experiences can also be supported in the planning, design, operation, and programming of the built environment in ways that seemingly have nothing to do with emergency preparedness. Strategies that bring people together, break down isolation, and support participation ultimately lead to resilience. Communities with the highest levels of cohesion are the ones most able to respond to and recover from disasters. And so the investment becomes circular. This is our greatest hope of weathering the changes ahead. Strong, organized, equitable, and connected communities are the building blocks of resilience.

Heather Rosenberg is a USGBC Ginsberg Fellow and leader of Building Resilience-LA, a USGBC-LA program for promoting resilience in buildings, organizations and communities. She may be reached at