Resilience to Adaptation
Illustration: Michael Kirkham

Climate change may still be a political hot potato, but the scientific community is almost unanimously on the same page: It is real, and it is already impacting our planet. The 21st century has already seen 14 of the 15 hottest years since record-taking began in the U.S. in the mid-19th century. As President Obama stated in an April radio address, “Climate change can no longer be ignored [and] 2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record.”

We cannot ignore extreme temperatures any more than we can ignore precipitation that has intensified in recent years. We cannot deny imperiled air quality any more than we can deny the increased severity of hazardous weather-related events. However, it isn’t just rhetoric, as the administration has implemented a wide range of regulations and policies which require federal agencies to include climate change risks and impacts in their deliberations. When the leader of the free world has made this a priority and matter of national security, we can be sure that the presidential directives and executive orders will have a ripple effect on the codes and regulations that architects will utilize.

While we may yet be unable to calculate with pinpoint accuracy the long-term effects of climate change, it is clear that, in the short-term, a paradigm shift among professionals designing for the built environment is necessary. Indeed, a swelling global population and rapid urbanization are placing greater pressures on an aging infrastructure in many quarters. By 2050, global demand for water is projected to increase by 55 percent. By 2035, global demand for energy will increase by 35 percent.

Climatologists have been Malthusian about pointing out that our natural resources—oil, freshwater, nutrient-rich soil—may be depleted to an unsustainable level for the future global population. And food scarcity is not just about an immediate lack of food; it’s also about the impossibility of growing more food in overworked soil—and that’s assuming the required agricultural land has not been developed or otherwise taken over.

The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) initiative refers to these profound shifts—economic, social, and environmental—as acute “shocks” and chronic “stresses.” Natural disasters are the shocks to a system, and the stresses are the daily pressures or barriers that prevent communities and individuals from thriving. In a natural disaster, these stresses can be the difference between those who recover and those who suffer.

Cities are systems, so it is important to view all issues, understand their interdependencies, and make decisions that do not harm the other components. To attract investment and development, cities sometimes have to hide or deny their vulnerabilities. So 100RC asks communities to name vulnerabilities and seek support to identify solutions that allow cities to respond and adapt. Resilient design strives for environmental, social, and economic sustainability with the ability to adapt to known and unknown risks and vulnerabilities. Community problems require community-based solutions. Applying creative systems-thinking in design innovation can result in thriving and sustainable communities that allow both people and the planet to prosper.

If the sustainability movement of the last 45 years taught all of us to reduce/reuse/recycle—to tighten our belts, as it were—then resilience calls for a belt-and-suspenders approach. In our effort to be more resilient as individuals, families, businesses, and communities, architects will need to carefully plan buildings, select products, and design systems that are easily adaptable to changing needs, holistic in acknowledging adjacencies and regional impacts, and finally see the environment as their client inasmuch as they see their paying patron as their client.

What, then, does adaptability look like? Do we build structures that are temporary or permanent? Robust or lightweight? Rigid or flexible? Are these structures to be designed based on historical data or future models?

Resilience: A Principled Approach

Before we can define adaptability, we have to look at the term “resilience” as an area of study that was born out of ecology and, at its core, holds the mandate for architects promoting it to solve problems without creating new ones. Indeed, its scientific definition is the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape after suffering a trauma.

It’s about elasticity, an innate quality of adaptability, and the connection to architecture is twofold. First, resilience means designing adaptable structures that can “learn” from their environments and sustain life, even in the face of disaster. Second, resilience means architects can learn from their buildings and deploy evermore-refined designs. Third, resilience means involving people directly in the design and creation of strong and inclusive cities.

These two objectives are accomplished by talking to experts outside of architecture, by coordinating with dozens of agencies and partners, and by modeling and analyzing project performance—so that if there’s any surprise at all down the line, it has to do with better-than-projected outcomes rather than worse-than-projected outcomes.

The development of the Toyota Prius (first available in Japan in 1997) is an example of this feedback loop. With successive models, Toyota managed to gradually increase the number of miles-per-gallon for its 1.5-liter engines, even after switching to a standard 1.8-liter engine. Overall, it was a positive evolution—with a twist: Hybrid cars like the Prius run so silently that they pose a risk for pedestrians. As reported by Paul Collins in Slate in 2012, some automakers are thinking of ways to make gas-sippers at least sound more like gas-guzzlers for that audible signal in an intersection. In this sense, an innovation can also be a new problem when created in isolation.

In other words, resilience and adaptation don’t always unfold in a straight line. It is a process. Architecture relies on the capacity of architects to embody what Robert Venturi, FAIA, called “messy vitality.” Messiness aside, architects need a set of principles for resilience and adaptation—prescriptive guidelines that address practice, business, and how the AIA may contribute to an emerging framework to not only define the concept for practitioners but also for the public.

“Resilience is fundamentally about the elasticity of a building, a community, or, more generically, a host to revert to the full operations of the status quo,” says Jesse M. Keenan, the research director for Columbia University’s Center for Urban Real Estate. “Adaptation is about a transformation to alternative domains of operations, which in one application means we must design, produce, and consume the built environment differently than we do now as we flexibly respond to the uncertainty associated with climate change.” Keenan argues that resilience is best thought to be a response to extreme weather events, maintaining the status quo through recovery and a reduction in vulnerability; however, "with long-term climate change, we will have no other option other than to adapt."

If architects can all start moving in the same direction, then a natural evolution of resilience and adaptation will occur in terms of technical specificity. And as our environment shifts and changes—for better or for worse—then that evolution in thinking will become more vital than ever. What follows are principles that may serve as the foundation for an emerging value system which imparts new professional ethical obligations.

Principles of Resilience

1. Discuss and incorporate resilience measures during predevelopment, programming, and planning phases so as to think across scales in regards to the passive ability of a building to operate in the face of extreme events. Mitigation planning includes six steps:

  • Identify hazards
  • Assess vulnerabilities
  • Analyze impacts
  • Modify programming with desired outcomes
  • Create performance targets
  • Design and implement; measure and evaluate

2. Think about how resilient interventions can create value in terms of the underwriting of building operations and in terms of mitigating harm to users and communities.

3. Balance first costs and long-term value over the intended service life in the decision-making process for total value. Position resilient interventions to provide co-benefits which might also serve sustainability and mitigation ends.

4. Pursue a multiscalar ecological systems approach through an integrated, multidisciplinary process to problem-solving.

5. Communicate to clients and building users about hazards, climate and extreme weather events that fall outside of historical precedent and build social resiliency between owners, operators and users. Implement some redundancy in daily systems and supplies, and have your emergency preparedness kit with you. Strive for self-sufficient individuals, communities, and buildings.

Principles of Adaptation

1. Because current practices may not be effective in solving future problems, architecture should be designed to have the capacity to accommodate changing environmental and social conditions within a building’s useful life. Utilize data and research on hazard and climate projections to perform risk and vulnerability assessments.

2. Develop systems of intelligence within buildings and owners to measure incremental changes in environmental and human conditions, which are often indirect to the impacts of climate change.

3. Strive for design that aligns life cycle assessment with potential periods of uncertainty. (Consider how buildings can facilitate regeneration of natural resources and improve air quality.)

4. Position resilient infrastructure and buildings to be able to become adaptive through incremental capital investment and accretive physical interventions.

5. Acknowledge that some standards and techniques may be obsolete with the advent of climate change.

Principles of Climate Change

1. Identify and discuss effective development and land use policies that protect individuals, build the economy, and enrich communities and the environment.

2. Advocate for the adoption of model building codes. In the permitting process, strive to streamline design review and approval processes so innovation is not synonymous with delay.

3. Identify and advocate for incentives for resilient design, construction, and operations.

4. Identify and develop public and professional networks which serve as resources for promoting social resiliency.

5. Promote small scalable prototypes and experiments which lead to scalable innovations which offset the costs of climate change.

For more on the AIA's resilience efforts, visit