Designing for Extremes: Building a Resilient City

As weather patterns continue to fluctuate at a dramatic rate, those involved in the design of the built environment are looking for ways to adapt structures to the inevitable consequences of climate change.


I attended the seminar Designing for Extremes: Building a Resilient City at the District Architecture Center on February 7th where speakers with backgrounds in meteorology, development, architecture and planning addressed issues of a warming climate and it’s impact on our infrastructure. The days of avoiding climate change are over, as it’s already here. While D.C. has not experienced a natural disaster on the scale of Hurricane Katrina or Sandy, the District is still recovering from the Federal Triangle Flash Flood of 2006 while also having the wettest year to date in 2018. Not to mention the increase of days above 95 degrees Fahrenheit year after year with decreases in average snowfall.


Efforts to mitigate the damage from rising temperatures have been underway with the analysis of its impacts and risk assessments followed by proposed solutions based on an area’s vulnerability. The Department of Energy and Environment has prepared a Climate Ready DC Plan that outlines high-level strategies accompanied with specific actions to better prepare for a changing climate. Key points include improving transportation and utilities to maintain functionality during periods of extreme heat, extreme weather and flooding, upgrading existing buildings and the design of new buildings and development projects to withstand climate change impacts, and strengthening neighborhood and community safety by promoting healthy social and economic resiliency.


What was especially interesting about the Climate Ready DC Plan was the emphasis on establishing strong communities and how that increases preparedness for natural disasters. By promoting concepts such as community WiFi, a shared solar grid and public facilities such as a church or a community center, citizens have access to resources and a network of people that can help one another in times of crisis.


In terms of physical attributes to a building’s ability to adapt, D.C. is one of the leading cities in the nation┬ápartly due to the D.C. Green Building Act of 2006, which required that after January 1, 2012, “all new non-residential construction projects of more than 50,000 square feet be LEED certified” (Kriss, Jacob, Taking Sustainability Seriously in Washington, DC). Boston, Massachusetts is also at the forefront of resilient design, with extensive plans for the harbor that restore marshes, buffer shorelines and secure public access to open space and transit corridors by elevating these areas.


Suggestions for building resilient designs include raising a structure off the ground level, placing all mechanical and electrical equipment as high up as the roof, and using passive design principles to provide adequate comfort without significant energy supply. Another observation is the impact of nature’s presence within an urban environment in the form of parks and forests. Above is a graphic from NOAA showing Washington D.C.’s urban heat island effect and the varying temperatures between wooded areas and urban spaces dominated by structures with less natural integration.


A key idea of sustainability is to nurture ours and the generations that come after us, to contribute to a continual and stable environment in which our children can thrive in. Architects have a duty when working with communities to establish a space that will enrich the social and environmental aspects of their life. GBR is a strong believer in sustainable design as we have work on many projects that are built to achieve LEED accreditation in addition to the numerous existing, historical buildings we have renovated and restored for today’s purposes.


While efforts to adapt to the rapidly changing climate are underway, convincing clients and business owners remains challenging as the up-front cost for resilient design is higher. However, the long-term benefits of building with a sustainable mindset prove the costs to be worthwhile and will positively contribute to our’s and future generation’s quality of life.