Building Resilient Communities

By Todd McLeish ’84, September 25, 2019
Alumnus starts nonprofit to encourage “resilient design” in the face of climate change.

When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, Alex Wilson ’77 was the publisher of Environmental Building News, a trade publication he had founded 15 years earlier in an effort to encourage the construction industry to pursue more sustainable building methods. The magazine had a significant influence 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 somewhat new direction, one that focused on construction principles that emphasized resiliency when 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 in the same circumstances,” Wilson said. “Older homes, constructed before air conditioning came along, were built with passive features to keep them comfortable, with wrap-around porches that shaded windows from the direct sun, designs that channeled summer breezes through the building.”

He knew that Katrina was not going to be the last storm that resulted in lengthy power outages, so he thought about how to design buildings that would ensure the safety of their occupants. He called it passive survivability.

“The climate is changing, and it’s changing in a way that’s increasing vulnerabilities to a lot of different threats ... It’s becoming ever-more-clear that we need to make our buildings and communities more resilient to them.”

Alex Wilson ’77

“The idea is that buildings should be designed to maintain habitable conditions passively when the power goes out,” said Wilson. “I initially 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 probably wanted to keep their families safe.”

Over time, he shifted his terminology from passive survivability to “resilient design” so people didn’t think he was advocating for the installation of survivalist bunkers. And then 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 passive survivability so buildings and communities are better prepared to weather the next storm. The institute is holding its first conference in November, alongside Building Green and the International Living Future Institute. Building Resilience 19 will bring together builders, architects, urban planners and more to discuss how to create more resilient buildings and communities.

“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. “There are a lot of these risks that we’re facing, and it’s becoming ever-more-clear that we need to make our buildings and communities more resilient to them.”

Man standing in front of old building

Wilson, standing here in front of a mid-1800s corn crib on his property, lives in a resilient property in Dummerston, Vermont.

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 — whatever those disturbances may be. It may mean raising mechanical equipment out of basements so they don’t get flooded, 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 than in Tuscaloosa, and it’s important to understand what those vulnerabilities are and what can be done to mitigate them for particular locations.”

Wilson used these ideas in contributing to the design of a state park lodge in Alabama to be resilient to hurricanes, and he helped develop resilient building guidelines for the cities of Boston, New York, 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.

At the same time, he is also 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 my first grandchild.”