How Do You Design For An Unknown Future?

What is your go-to resilient design resources? I asked this question of two leading design firms each at the forefront of integrating resilience into their projects. And their responses were compelling and informative for anyone interested in addressing resilience in their work. Based on the latest science* and weather reports, this should be all of us!

Z Smith, Director of Sustainability and Building Performance at New Orleans-based Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, is a fountain of knowledge on resilience given NOLA’s vulnerable location and years of work in the Gulf before and after Hurricane Katrina.

Z recommends the  U.S. Federal Government Climate Resilience Toolkit as a go-to resource for a range of resilience topics – from concise explanations to process maps, case studies and tools that show a range of climate predictions by location. These include sea level rise, storm surge, changes in heat and precipitation.

He also acknowledges the challenge is to make 50-100-year buildings where climate projections aren’t that exact. He says we can design for the current ‘worst case’ but that ‘worst case’ keeps shifting based on new observations and sub-systems (permafrost, arctic lakes) we are just beginning to learn about. Predicting flooding is particularly uncertain, because you have to make assumptions about how infrastructure may or may not be upgraded as sea levels rise and rainfall intensities and storm surges increase.

Z recommends one design approach is to recognize that different components have different life spans – mechanical systems typically are replaced every 20 years, so a responsible design solution would anticipate that and provide flexible space for adaptation and modifications. Eskew+Dumez+Ripple is working on one Federal project which requires them to look at decadal climate projections to anticipate and accommodate changes. He says, “All we can do is provide a reasonable standard of care.” But the question of standard of care is also changing – see the latest blog from Schinnerer, which provides insurance to the design industry on just this topic: “How Climate Change is Changing the Standard of Care.”

Z raises another point that is particularly important for those impacted by flooding, sea level rise and storm surges. It does little good to have a resilient building if it’s not accessible and connected to its neighborhood, like houses raised 12’ above the ground during a flood. Resilience is very much a planning challenge with the goal to foster community – if only a handful of buildings are resilient the impact is minimal at best. So, thinking at the larger scale is a critical aspect of designing for resilience.  This includes following changes in renewable energy and battery storage capabilities which will drive the expansion of adaptable energy systems at the district scale.


Mary Ann Lazarus, FAIA, LEED Fellow, is a Principal Consultant at Cameron MacAllister Group. She co-leads the firm’s sustainability consulting efforts and works with design firms to integrate greater sustainability and resiliency outcomes throughout their practice. If you are interested in learning how Mary Ann can help your firm, contact her directly at 314-805-9332 or via email.

* See the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s October 7 report that, per the NY Times “paints a far more dire picture of the immediate consequences of climate change than previously thought and says that avoiding the damage requires transforming the world economy at a speed and scale that has ‘no documented historic precedent.’”