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Green Product Spotlight: Enhancing Resilience of Buildings

We need to create buildings and communities that are more resilient to natural disasters and other shocks. These building products can help.

Damaged by Hurricane Ike in 2008, this 19th-century house in Galveston, Texas, was moved, elevated, and renovated to LEED Platinum standards. In addition to insulation, solar panels, and rainwater cisterns, the house features natural ventilation via operable transom windows and a restored breezeway. Photos: Galveston Historical Foundation

As climate change becomes an ever greater reality, the need to create resilient buildings and communities becomes more important. Resilience is partly about adaptation to climate change and partly about common sense health and safety issues in an age of increasing resource constraints, growing economic swings, the greater vulnerability to uncertainties that lie ahead.

While much of resilience is about building design and community planning, as in the extensive checklist I included in the recent EBN feature article Resilient Design--Smarter Building for a Turbulent Future, there are aspects that relate to specific product selections. We recently screened the 2,300-plus green product listings in GreenSpec to identify products that specifically increase resilience.

Here are some of the products that are flagged in GreenSpec for contributing to resilient buildings and communities. In some cases this attribute is enough for us to consider a product green; in some cases not. (See What Makes a Product Green? for more on our process of product selection.)

Products that can provide heat or hot water during power outages

Examples of products that might get this attribute include clean-burning wood stoves, pellet stoves with DC power kits that allow use during blackouts, tankless water heaters that rely on battery-fired spark ignition or pilot lights rather than standard electronic ignition (models with pilot lights may not achieve high enough efficiency to be included in GreenSpec); pilot-operated, through-the-wall-vented, gas heaters that have piezo-electric-powered controls that achieve reasonable efficiency, and wood stove heat exchangers for water heating that function through passive thermosiphoning.

Renewable energy systems that function during power outages

Most inverters used for grid-connected photovoltaic energy systems do not work when the grid goes down, but some can; those inverters would earn this attribute. So would passive solar water heaters (thermosiphoning or integral-collector-storage) and active solar water heaters with integral PV modules to power the pump when the sun is shining.

Back-up power systems with environmental attributes

Standard fossil-fuel-fired generators would not achieve this attribute unless they had exceptional environmental performance (perhaps exceptionally clean-burning or with waste-heat capture), but PV-powered generators would earn this attribute. So could environmentally responsible battery and flywheel power storage systems.

Sun-blocking window attachments

The number of products that reduce cooling loads is enormous. To provide some focus, we specifically recognize here only those products that can be utilized quickly during a power outage and are highly effective, such as exterior roller blinds and sun screens.

Tubular skylights bring daylight in when electricity is off.

Tubular skylights and fiber-optic daylighting

Daylighting is a design feature that contributes to resilience in buildings, and as with energy-efficiency, there are numerous products that support this. To provide some focus, we designate tubular skylights and fiber-optic daylighting systems here, because these systems allow daylight to be delivered in places that are not reached by windows--spaces that would be unsafe in the daytime hours in the event of a power outage.

Onsite water storage and rainwater harvesting equipment

Cisterns, rainwater harvesting equipment, and related components that provide on-site water storage can provide critical water supply during extended power outages and during periods of extreme drought. Products that aid in the delivery of water during power outages, such as water-pumping windmills, hand-operated pumps, solar-powered water-purification systems, and gravity-feed spring components also enhance resilience.

Composting toilets and waterless urinals

Toilets and urinals that do not require water for waste conveyance are usable during water shortages or power outages when potable water is not available, thus boosting resilience.

Products offering storm or flood resilience

Hurricane tie-down straps and other structural components help buildings resist storm events, and flood dams and breakaway flood-release panels can protect buildings during flood events.

Moisture-tolerant construction and finish materials

After a flood, it's critical to the health of communities to restore habitability of buildings--if it was lost to begin with. GreenSpec lists as providing resilience interior finish materials that can survive wetting from floods without long-term damage, such as moisture-tolerant subflooring, non-paper-faced drywall, and polished concrete. Many other moisture-resistant building materials are in widespread use that we don't focus on here, such as tile flooring and cement board, even though these should be considered as part of resilient design.

Wildfire-resistant materials and components

In some parts of the country, resistance to wildfires is a top priority of resilience. GreenSpec considers resilience-enhancing products here such products as ember-excluding soffit vents, decking that meets stringent wildfire standards, fiber-cement siding, and noncombustible roofing.

Solar-powered electric vehicle charging stations and bicycle racks

Equipment and systems that reduce dependence on gasoline-powered vehicles can increase resilience, because of their benefits during potential gasoline shortages--and their ability to help us create communities less dependent on cars.

Urban gardening and farming components

Although this has not been a focus of GreenSpec before now, products and components that can help achieve higher levels of local food production could earn GreenSpec listing. Examples might include hydroponic components that are optimized for rooftop applications. What do you think? Would you like GreenSpec to recommend high-performing products in this category for your building projects?

We've started by adding this attribute to appropriate products already listed in GreenSpec for their other green features. Next, we'll specifically seek out products with this resilience characteristic--so keep your eyes out for new products in GreenSpec or others you think we should consider.

What other types of products do you think should be included here? We'd love to hear your thoughts. You can also read more blog posts on Resilient Design.

Posted by Alex Wilson on April 11, 2012

Comments

resiliency

Thanks for bringing resiliency to the fore again, Alex. Allow me to suggest a crucial consideration. At the start of this piece you claim to offer advice on community resiliency, but your only relevant suggestion is on local food right at the end. Single households in a crisis have much better chances of persisting if the neighborhood pulls together (as is the tendency in crises). Sharing responsibility with our neighbors may be as important as resiliency at the household level. Can you add some community-level tactics to your GreenSpec criteria? How can we help each other with necessities in an ecological crisis? What does a resilient community look like? And how can we builders contribute? Again - thanks for raising our consciousness of a crucial topic!

Community resilience

Gary, I agree that community resilience is extremely important--and I regularly promote various aspects of that. But I've struggled to come up with a lot of PRODUCTS that help us achieve community resilience. That's the focus of this blog and the recent additions to our GreenSpec database. What are the products that contribute to communities pulling together at times of need, or becoming less dependent on resources from away, or working together? I'd love to hear product suggestions--in addition to strategies. Thanks much.

back up power systems

fossil fueled generators can be effective short term power providers when coupled with a battery charger and a modest battery system. An hour or two of run time can power a whole day's worth of 12 volt lights and water pumping and a radio and with a small inverter could also power a computer

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