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Making Our Buildings Disaster-Proof: The Next Green Frontier

As the world deals with quakes, storms, tsunamis, and eruptions, builders realize that a building isn't really sustainable unless it can survive the worst.
 
 
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The Ray and Dagmar Dolby Regeneration Medicine Building at University of California, San Francisco
Photo Credit: Rafael Vinoly Architects

 

Nevertheless, green-building advocates and disaster planners are finding common ground as they try to convince cost-conscious building owners that keeping a building operational after a punishing quake or other disaster makes economic and environmental sense. Developers and architects already earn green-building kudos for outfitting structures with solar panels and energy-scrimping lighting. Now some builders wonder whether keeping a building standing should earn them similar credit.

“If we’re taking a building and putting it on top of an earthquake fault, and if we haven’t considered and evaluated the lifecycle performance from those earthquake risks, I don’t think we can really call a building sustainable,” says Erik Kneer, an associate engineer who works in the Oakland offices of  Degenkolb.

Kneer and colleagues at his San Francisco-based firm, as well as other seismic engineers, are starting to promote the concept of resilience — the ability for a community or structure to survive and quickly recover from a disaster — as essential for green building. Any building, after all, represents tremendous amounts of “embodied energy” from extracting raw materials, transporting them, and ultimately discarding them when a building is no longer usable. What happens if it’s destroyed long before its predicted lifespan? All that energy will again need to be expended.

“For green buildings or something that you’re calling sustainable, it doesn’t make sense to call it sustainable if you haven’t evaluated the long-term risks associated with the natural hazards for that building,” Kneer says.

The latest sustainable construction techniques are useless, he adds, if those high-performance systems are placed in a structure that can’t withstand conditions like extreme seismic shaking or hurricane force winds.

“To me, that just doesn’t make any sense,” he says. “It’s like taking a Ferrari engine and putting it in a Yugo.”

While most clients want to know how much money a disaster might cost them, Kneer says a growing interest in corporate social responsibility motivated Degonkolb to create a tool, called Envisa, to measure environmental impacts. Developed by Matthew Comber, Envisa couples information about the long-term environmental impacts of a structure’s building materials with federal data about the likelihood of various hazards. The results illustrate both how costly quake damage can be for a range of building systems, and what carbon dioxide emissions would be associated with recovery and reconstruction of a building.

“For a new building project that’s going for LEED certification, this provides a quantitative basis to justify decisions on seismic resiliency,” says Kneer.

The certification Kneer refers to — Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED — is the widely accepted standard developed by the United States Green Building Council. Kneer, who is LEED certified, sits on the regionalization committee for the USGBC’s Northern California chapter. He wants credits for green building to be more closely tied to a project’s regional context. Along the Pacific Coast, for example, regionalization credits might be based on a building’s seismic performance, while in the Southeast credits might be issued for the ability to withstand hurricanes.

Many regional chapters have advocated for such credits, and chapters can adapt their guidelines somewhat to address regional concerns, but disaster resiliency hasn’t made its way into the organization’s certification rules.

Still, one project has received LEED credit for its seismic performance. Opened last year, the  Ray and Dagmar Dolby Regeneration Medicine Building at the University of California, San Francisco, stands on a base-isolation system designed by San Francisco’s Forell/Elsesser engineers. It operates like a car’s shock absorber. When the Big One strikes from the nearby San Andreas Fault, the base of the building will shake with the quake, but components separating the lab above will keep most of the energy away and, hopefully, prevent significant damage.

 
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