California’s Wildfires Prove that Resilient Design Needs Constant Evolution

Panelists at the Metropolis Perspective: Sustainability event in Los Angeles last week pointed to policy and research on resilience as top priorities for architects and designers.
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Architects and product manufacturers discussed the new priorities of resilient architecture and design. Photo by Roxanne Turpen

Set against the backdrop of Californias ongoing wildfire crisis, a group of sustainable design leaders across architecture, urban design, and product manufacturing recently gathered at SCI-Arc for the Metropolis Perspective: Sustainability symposium to examine whats next in building for resilience and how our buildings and cities can better adapt to rapidly changing natural systems. 

The elements that originally made our cities the economic powerhouses that they are today access to coastlines and bodies of water and trade and transportation routes have now become liabilities as urban areas across the United States are experiencing an exponential rise in historic climate incidents related to those same geographical features.

Theres been considerable attention in the building industry on climate resilient design through the lens of water-related challenges. But the wildfires that have plagued California in recent yearscaused in no small part by disinvestment on the part of the state’s fraught private utility Pacific Gas and Electricare highlighting the need for urgent and focused attention on drought and wildfire considerations as part of the discussion on resilient design.

Kate Diamond, civic design director at HDR, admits that while the firm has had a longstanding commitment toward resilient design across scales (from individual buildings to districts and entire city strategies), that before the last couple of years, fires hadnt been at the top of her mind when it comes to resilience. As designers, well now have to consider things like standards for distances separating trees from buildings as winds get stronger and drought and temperatures rise. And are there ways to look at fresh air intake or needing to keep air filtered in different ways to mitigate health impacts of these fires.

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The panel comprised of Kate Diamond, civic design director, HDR; Sean Quinn, senior associate, sustainable design leader–Pacific region, HOK; Richard Murlin, sales director, USG Ceilings Plus; Shara Castillo, principal, ZGF; and Roxane Spears, vice president sustainability North America, Tarkett. The discussion was moderated by Metropolis editor in chief Avinash Rajagopal. Photo by Roxanne Turpen

Los Angelesmost notable example of fire resilient design is the Getty Center, which once again demonstrated its effectiveness against last week’s fire. The design of the campussix buildings relies on fire-resistant materials including stone, protected steel, and reinforced concrete. And a carbon-filtered air conditioning system works to maintain an appropriate level of pressurization of all interiors to protect the artworks inside. Open spaces, plazas, and landscaping across the 24-acre site are maintained by an intricately engineered and managed irrigation and water system that self-adjusts to drought levels onsite.

These design decisions in fire and drought prone climates become especially critical when working with clients across government, infrastructure, and the sciences, whose work directly relies on their ability to withstand extreme weather events—and who have intensive water and energy needs. For the Los Angeles Department of Power and Water, HDR has had to design more robust solutions including microgrids and water treatment facilities in order to ensure these structures will be operational in the event of an earthquake or other extreme weather events.

To expedite the adoption of resilient design solutionssince milestones like Architecture 2030 are too far off given the grave impacts these conditions are having todaythe panelists pointed to two key focuses for the industry: policy and research.

Architects should serve as advocates and partners with policymakers in implementing local resilience strategies and in considering whether it actually makes sense to construct in the same places and in the same way, rather than, as Shara Castillo of ZGF puts it, rebuilding the same house 4 or 5 times. This engagement from the architecture community is increasingly important following the shuttering of the Rockefeller Foundation-supported 100 Resilient Cities initiatives, which since 2013 had funded the creation of Chief Resiliency Officer posts in over 100 cities around the world (and with nearly half of those still in the process of developing their resilience strategies). As Tarkett’s Roxane Spears pointed out, architects and designers can look to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to guide the essential elements of a socially responsible policy framework. 

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Anthony Brower, director of sustainable design and senior associate at Gensler, delivered the opening keynote for the panel. Photo by Roxanne Turpen

As far as research, open source tools and resources are needed to expedite adoption of these design practices across the industry, as panelists noted. HOK’s Genius of Biome research initiative provides a suite of free online tools and resources documenting the link between biomimicry and resilient design. As Sustainable Design Leader Sean Quinn put it, “How can we design inareas facing challenges—drought, fire, floods and earthquakes—and look to those local species that have adapted to these conditions over time?” And Gensler’s ongoing Impact by Design research details specific resilient building design strategies across six key areas: form, materials, adaptation, energy, water, and smart technology.

Speaking to her work with AIA Los AngelesCommittee for the Environment, Diamond says, Weve been spending an enormous amount of time and we represent firms that have the capacity to invest in research modeling on behalf of our peers across the industry that dont already have access to these tools.In response to LAs plan for its own Green New Deal, the group will be looking into research and prototypes to set up modeling systems and strategies for embedding these tools.

USG’s Richard Murlin left the audience with one final call to action: Act with urgency. Be the disruptor in the room. Challenge the status quo and dont do business as usual.

The Los Angeles edition of Metropolis Perspective: Sustainability was held at SCI-Arc on October 30, and sponsored by 3Form, Armstrong Ceilings, Shaw Contract, Tarkett, Teknion, USG, and Aquafil.

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Categories: Sustainability