We keep hearing the word “resilience” being used in reference to the built environment, and particularly new building design, but what does it refer to?

Resilience conveys strength and adaptability, and a resilient building is something designed to stand the test of time. It’s durable and agile, appropriately designed to take into account internal factors such as occupant impacts, durability, requirements for adaptiveness and accessibility, rapidly changing technologies and requirements of users, as well as the external factors such as environment, climate, energy security, among others.

A resilient building is one that won’t be knocked down or gutted in 20 years because it’s no longer appropriate or hasn’t stood the test of time. It’s something built to sustain its systems and purpose with longevity in mind.

These buildings are designed and built with an eye to the future. Doing what we did last time, or the time before, is no longer going to cut it. Design needs to be iterative. The future is looking less and less certain, so our designs can no longer afford to use the standard mold.  A truly resilient building is durable, flexible, and energy-autonomous.

We are starting to design resilient buildings, but the world is so dynamic and in such a state of flux that we may never truly hit the mark. Perhaps our best examples of resilient buildings are those that are still around after hundreds of years, and we’re still using them. What more could you want from a building?

It is becoming very apparent that holistic sustainability is nothing without a consideration of long-term resilience. Indeed, the very term is defined with future in mind. Perhaps, though, resilience is a definition and sustainability has become a verb. It is our approach to get there.

Sustainability has become a dirty word, and is hated by many, mainly because of the way it’s been realised in regulation – somewhere between a costly add-on or a huge sufferance. Those who have embraced and integrated it have quickly realised the benefits. Resilience is more widely understood to be integral to design. No one would argue that they don’t want a resilient building.

When it comes to getting the design right, particularly with services and controls, we need to make sure we ask the question “what if?” when undertaking the design. In doing so, we are starting to talk about resilience. We’ve always done it, but as our concerns are changing we need to ask a wider range of questions and perhaps even consult a wider range of users and experts.

What if the maximum temperature is two degrees higher due to climate change? What if flooding becomes a bigger issue in the area we’re building? What if technology changes so fast that the current use of the building is obsolete? Then I need to adapt my systems design. I need to allow for the future, and my building therefore needs to become resilient.

And how do we realise good buildings? This needs to be led by those in charge of realising the projects. While many are happy to do as they’ve always done, many indeed want to change the game. Engineers know what they need to do, and want to do it. Clients and architects must now allow the freedom (and budget) to look further into the future and make sure the right things are done. Designing buildings for a 25-year life span is ludicrous. It’s a new phenomenon that is extremely wasteful.

In the last few years, architects and building designers have excelled at delivering internally flexible and adaptable designs, and accessibility is now a fundamental consideration. Architects are really providing some great spaces that will continue to be highly useful well into the future.

The major issue for most projects is short-term vision, such as working only toward short-term economic goals. A building shouldn’t be a ‘product’ and maximising investor returns shouldn’t be the primarily goal. In placing a habitat on a site, it is critical to think of those who occupy now and who will for the next century. Buildings are meant to serve people, a concept lost at some point but now prominent in the discussion. The conversation is swinging around from ‘cost’ to ‘value’ with the real disruptor on the market being the consideration of health and well-being.

An inherent issue with modern building design is the disconnect between science and architecture. A building that is designed without thought of the performance will surely disappoint, and the same will be true for one designed purely from the engineering perspective. It is apparent on many projects that a coherent and integrated approach was not taken, and this can be seen from the capacity and/or complexity of systems required to ‘fix’ many avoidable problems.

Some of our most successful buildings are centuries old; they are highly valued architecturally, still sound, relatively comfortable and look likely to last longer than our newer examples. Get the building envelope right, and the necessary technology is likely to be smaller, simpler, cheaper, and easier to manage and maintain. These buildings are more comfortable to occupy, last longer, cost less to maintain and operate and use much less energy. This approach is integrated and requires a team approach, but still allows for flexible use and aesthetic freedom.

This approach is referred to as fabric first – if a building is designed well in terms of getting the envelope right, then resilience is far more of a guarantee. A well-designed building should have simple ventilation systems, very little need for air conditioning, no predisposition to condensation or mould (no rot), all of which will help to ensure it is highly durable and low maintenance. Many of these aspects can be retrofitted, but not all, and for many buildings the economics of a retrofit won’t stack up.

New solutions are being determined all the time, such as retrofitting energy efficiency. For example, the Empire State Building underwent a retrofit project that has seen 40 per cent energy savings, with both building fabric and plant upgrades. Across 200,000 square metres and in an-85 year-old building, that’s huge. Sometimes, however, a building is just not well designed, and after its useful life span it may be necessary to start again. The assessment isn’t just economic – it should encompass the social and environmental benefits as well.

Without thinking ahead, the time, energy and resources we commit to building now is simply wasted. Putting up buildings that aren’t intended to cope with conditions 10, 20 or 50 years into the future is poor planning. It’s well established that climate change will impact us heavily, and if that hasn’t begun to filter into current planning then there is a major disconnect. We need to be designing for higher temperatures, more flooding events, frequent and prolonged drought – it sounds pretty dire, but we can’t keep rolling out traditional building design. Isn’t that the definition of insanity?

In looking at who is leading the charge for resilience, the action is coming from the ground up – consumers and clients need to demand it, while engineers and architects need to either educate clients or find ways to make resilient design the norm, and with no premium to the client. Savvy clients are definitely already looking for resilient designs; they’re reassessing the cost vs value proposition and finding that they want something that’s worth building. The mantra of ‘built to last’ is making its way back into the sector. Even the developers are taking note!