Designing Resilient Buildings

When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, Alex Wilson ’77 was the publisher of Environmental Building News, a trade publication he founded 15 years earlier to encourage the construction industry to pursue more sustainable building methods. The magazine was influential in the development of building design and construction practices that were more environmentally responsible and resource efficient.

But the hurricane got Wilson thinking in a new direction, one that focused on construction principles that emphasized resiliency in places where living conditions were not optimal.

“I noticed that older homes in the gulf that weren’t flooded but still lost power for weeks or months were more livable than newer homes,” Wilson said. “Older homes, constructed before air conditioning, were built with passive features to keep them comfortable, with wrap-around porches that shaded windows, designs that channeled summer breezes through the building.”

He knew that future storms would result in lengthy power outages, so he thought about how to design buildings that would improve livability and ensure safety. He called it passive survivability.

“The idea is that buildings should be designed to maintain habitable conditions passively when the power goes out,” said Wilson. “I got excited about the concept because I saw it as a motivation to get people to build greener buildings. I argued that even people who didn’t care about the environment still want to keep their families safe.”

Over time, he shifted the terminology from passive survivability to “resilient design” so that people didn’t think he was advocating for the installation of survival bunkers. He reduced his involvement in Building Green Inc., the company he had founded to encourage green building practices, and launched the Resilient Design Institute, a nonprofit that promotes the idea of resilient design, so buildings and communities are better prepared to weather the next storm.

“The climate is changing, and it’s changing in a way that’s increasing vulnerabilities to a lot of different threats—more intense storms, more frequent tornadoes, increasing drought conditions, flooding, sea-level rise, wildfires,” he said. “It’s becoming clear that we need to make our buildings and communities more resilient to them.”

To Wilson, who majored in biology at IC, the idea of resiliency is about creating buildings that are better able to bounce back from disturbances. It may mean building with fireproof materials, designing structures to resist wind damage, or improving energy performance.

“The first task is understanding the vulnerabilities,” he said. “The vulnerabilities in Ithaca will be a lot different [from the ones] in Tuscaloosa, and it’s important to understand what can be done to mitigate them for particular locations.”

Wilson used these ideas in helping develop resilient building guidelines for Boston, New York City, and Washington, D.C. He also led an effort to create credits for resilient design in the LEED rating system of the U.S. Green Building Council.

On a more personal note, Wilson is looking toward the next chapter in his life. As he begins to think about transitioning to retirement, he is searching for the right individuals to take over the Resilient Design Institute, so he can spend more time on his farm in southern Vermont.

“I want to build a writers’ cabin by the pond we have,” Wilson said. “I want to finish up revisions to the paddling guides I’ve written for the Appalachian Mountain Club. And I’m looking forward to [the arrival of] my first grandchild.”