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defining resilience in the built environment

On December 11, 2017, AIA Seattle hosted a seminar, Resilience Thinking: Places, Spaces, Communities, to answer the question: How do we plan, design, build, and adapt spaces, places and cities while enabling community resilience? The audience—a room full of A/E/C professionals, including myself—quickly learned that the question doesn’t have a simple one-size-fits-all answer. As the seminar kicked off, we braced ourselves for a day of complex system discussion with an unlimited number of variables.


The group shared ideas on systems that keep an office, home or community running on a daily basis [i.e. food/nutrition, water, transportation, healthcare, heat/cooling, shelter], but my wheels really started spinning when the topic of resilience in the face of disaster came up.

We often hone in on our immediate surroundings when preparing for an emergency and narrow our focus to the building we work or live in. Where will we go for safety? Will we lose power? Will the building withstand the force? The scope, scale, and timeframe is usually far beyond just the hard start and stop of a disastrous event, and for that reason we have to consider the systems involved to preserve life and property beyond a single moment in time.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s take an isolated look at a building in a common natural disaster on the west coast: seismic activity. We usually rely on the structural system to protect a building and its occupants—resisting forces such as wind and snow loads; however, during an earthquake, the building cannot simply resist … it must be resilient. The building structure must flex and bend with the lateral forces and eventually recover to its original state.

Now, step out of the building and look at the surrounding community. What other systems are in jeopardy after an earthquake? At top of mind are transportation, communications, waste water treatment, potable water, and electricity. Looking at this bigger picture, the opportunities to build resilience increase exponentially as do the number of stakeholders involved.

Many cities are grappling with the challenge of resiliency, each with their own set of variables, complexities, and opportunities. With the advancements in technology, our cities and systems within are more interconnected than ever. Learn more about individual city resiliency efforts through the 100 Resilient Cities network.


Modularity, the ability to compartmentalize system components, is just as important as interconnectivity in regards to resilient systems. Modular systems use built-in redundancy where one or two modules may be damaged beyond repair, but if compartmentalized correctly, the system keeps working at a limited capacity. At the very least, the compartmentalization should prevent system-wide failure.

Your home’s electrical system is a perfect example of modularity and compartmentalization in action. All of the wiring is part of the same system, yet different circuits provide electricity to separate modules of the home. This prevents a power outage at the refrigerator when the leaf blower trips the breaker in the garage. The modularity and compartmentalization also speeds up system recovery to full working status by limiting the number of components requiring repair or replacement.


The time it takes to restore a system back to its normal state is a hot topic when it comes to resiliency. During the seminar’s break-out session, each group honed in on specific types of buildings and infrastructure that were most likely to recover quickly from a disaster. Interestingly, every group looked beyond their own building and thought of the community as a whole [interconnectivity].

The community itself is a system that plays a primary role in recovery. Does the community know where to go in case of emergency? Is there a strategy in place for accessing potable water? How can one community support another?

Enabling community resilience is a complex topicmuch more complex than I realized before a full day of discussion and presentations. It’s time we start thinking in terms of resilience instead of simply resistance. When planning for buildings and infrastructure, consider the systems as well as the time and resources required to recover from a disaster.