Australia can learn from a US project to build stronger houses to withstand extreme weather events.

With the latest five-year assessment by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released recently, resilience is back in the spotlight.

The IPCC report outlines the expected global impacts from intensifying climate change such as bushfires and flooding. It’s all there in black and white – our industry must act more decisively to ensure our buildings, communities and infrastructure are more resilient to the impacts of climate change.

Currently, this is not the case. The Climate Institute’s report, Coming Ready or Not: Managing climate risks to Australia’s infrastructure, argues that our infrastructure is poorly-equipped to deal with the consequences of extreme weather events and that we can expect to incur significant human and economic costs as a result.

Earlier this year, I toured the Make It Right housing project in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, an area devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Hurricane decimated the community, killing 1,300 people and flattening 4,000 homes.

Make It Right, the brainchild of Brad Pitt, brought together funding and world-renowned architects such as Frank Gehry, David Adjaye and Shigeru Ban to design and construct LEED Platinum-rated homes (LEED is the US equivalent of Green Star). Each home is affordable, safe and sustainable, costing less than US$150 per square metre to build, is flood and storm resistant, and achieves the highest LEED certification.

Make It Right’s director of construction, Craig Turner, showed me how the project has become an ‘urban laboratory’ for design innovation. These homes aren’t just able to withstand hurricane force winds, they are also spectacular models of sustainability. Even more interesting to me as a trained architect with a passion for sustainable design, they demonstrate how exciting and eclectic sustainable architecture can be.

The project team has tested numerous innovative technologies and techniques, such as porous pavement for footpaths and roads, Kevlar coverings and extra-strong glass for windows and multi-angled steel roofs that are wind-resistant. Escape hatches have been built into roofs to prevent people from being trapped in flooding attics. Other elements in the homes are just good design: houses are raised on stilts to minimise flood damage, well-positioned windows let in the daylight and non-toxic materials provide good indoor environment quality. Rainwater collection systems and photovoltaics also minimise environmental impact.

The Make It Right Foundation has now broadened its focus to the precinct level, and aims to revitalise the ninth ward. Work has begun to develop critical services, such as a community centre.

So, what lessons can we learn in Australia? While it is clear basic housing standards in Australia are higher than those in New Orleans, the Make It Right foundation’s approach leads me to believe there’s an opportunity to go beyond energy consumption in housing and to consider the needs for healthy and adaptable housing.

The industry is already making progress. The Green Star – Communities rating tool has established best practice benchmarks which can assist communities to become more resilient. The objective of the Gov-6 Adaptation and Resilience credit, for example, is ‘to encourage and recognise projects that can adapt and are resilient to the impacts of a changing climate and natural disasters.’ To meet the requirements of this credit, projects must develop a climate adaptation plan or community resilience report.

Other credits within the Green Star – Communities rating tool also contribute to more resilient communities, including Env-3 Heat Island Effect, Env-8 Stormwater, Liv-4 Access to Fresh Food and Gov-3 Sustainability Awareness. Credits such as Econ-8 Peak Electricity Demand encourage resilience through rewarding communities for producing their own energy and reducing reliance on existing infrastructure.

Other initiatives are also to be congratulated. Build It Back Green continues to raise awareness for sustainable solutions for disaster-effected communities, while ASBEC’s Built Environment Adaptation Framework outlines ten ways in which government can work with industry to deliver effective adaptation strategies. Priorities include reviewing our national building codes and improving planning systems and outcomes.

The GBCA also believes buildings have an important role to play, which is why we have introduced an ‘Adaptation and Resilience’ Innovation challenge. This rewards project teams that embrace innovation to address future climate change impacts. Expect to see a new credit based on this challenge within the ‘Management’ category of the the new Green Star – Design & As Built rating tool.

The biggest lesson for us to learn from Make It Right’s New Orleans project is that it is possible – and desirable – to look at how are houses, apartments, communities, and infrastructure are built not just for the current climate, but also for our future needs.  That’s true resilience.