3 Ways to Enhance Sustainability and Resiliency in Built Environments


As we celebrate Earth Day 2022, we hear the words resiliency and sustainability a lot lately, especially when considering built environments. As Earth Day empathizes the need to focus on our environment and protecting our planet for a sustainable future, the idea of resilience in our built environment also contributes to a sustainable future.

Resiliency and sustainability are part of evolving building and development codes that enhance our built environment. The shared attributes of resiliency and sustainability complement each other in several ways:

  • Fosters independence from the support of large utility company services – like water, electricity, sewage, etcetera – even if for a limited period, like after a natural disaster.
  • Reduces environmental impacts by limiting damage from extreme weather events:
    • Less fill and debris put into landfills.
    • Less energy used to rebuild buildings.
    • Buildings maintain integrity through high wind and water impacts.
  • Utilizes resilient buildings to provide storage for resources as they increase the timelines between building, tearing down and rebuilding.
  • Supports the community by establishing a resilient core to facilitate recovery after a natural disaster.

On August 23, 1992, I had no idea that a life-changing severe weather event would occur in less than 24 hours. At the time I was living in south Miami-Dade County, just north of the Florida Keys, in Florida City, a small town about 30 miles south of Miami. My house was 10 miles due east from Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station that stands near the coast along Biscayne Bay, where the eye of Hurricane Andrew, a powerful and destructive category 5 storm, hit in the early hours the next day.

While the house that I designed and built fared well before and after the eye of the storm passed over us, other houses and structures were less fortunate and suffered severe damage. One such house around the corner from where I lived, although built with concrete block walls, was blown away right down to the slab and block course at ground level.

The roofing system on the house I designed consisted of fiberglass shingles installed over building felt and a plywood sheathed roof deck fastened to wood roof trusses with a 7.5-in-12 pitch. The steep slope enabled the shingles on the roof to remain attached during the storm as the slope reduced the uplift pressures from the hurricane speed winds, a common result on most of the houses in my community where the typical roof pitch was 4-in-12.

The only damage to the roof was a small skylight in the second-floor bathroom that was blown away. The rest of the house was undamaged. Across the street from an open field, the rocks picked up by storm winds broke all glass from windows without sufficient protection. Low-pitched roofs had roofing blown off down to the sheathing and, in some cases, the sheathing itself was torn off the trusses and blown away.

Besides the high winds, there were several equally, if even more destructive, tornados that were part of this event. The house next door to the one I designed, had an oak tree in the front yard twisted off the base of its trunk and was slammed against the adjacent gable end of the house. This opened the attic area and allowed high-speed hurricane force winds to blow in, uplift and remove the roof sheathing on this part of the house. The shingle roofing had already been blown off the roof.

In the days, weeks and months that followed we lived through a series of recovery efforts from initial triage response through martial law and occupation by military units to the rebuilding of the utility grid for the town. Some of my memories include the sound of generators humming in the neighborhood and the cold showers we took since we lacked the power to run our water heaters. While going through that type of experience makes you appreciate modern conveniences like electrical power and internet service, it also reminds us of the need to plan and be prepared for these types of events, which is part of the concept of resiliency in our built environment.

In 1995, I was part of a team that traveled to the U.S. Virgin Islands to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Marilyn. Working with Federal and Virgin Islands’ government agencies, we surveyed damaged schools and other buildings, including private retail centers that were rebuilding. One area of resilient planning from that experience was the importance of reestablishing operations in buildings damaged by the storm that were forced to close.

Using resilient planning techniques, building operators and owners used contactors to repair damages on a “unit price” basis – per lineal foot, square foot, by the piece, etcetera – to expedite remedial construction, recovery and reopening of their facilities. While this approach is not always practical for small homeowners and commercial operations, it can be a game changer for the operations of the affected facilities when implementation is possible.

In the years since Hurricane Andrew hit Florida, increased levels of resiliency for the built environment have been implemented through new building codes and development requirements. Public buildings have even greater requirements, especially if designated as public shelters. Of course, code requirements are the minimum and the building owner/operator is encouraged to exceed these requirements when possible and practical.

Along with the increased resiliency requirements in our building codes, a parallel implementation of increased sustainability has been implemented as part of building energy codes that have seen increased energy efficiency requirements. Starting in 1979, Florida energy codes have been a part of the building design process aiming to make our built environment more sustainable through energy conservation in both the static built-in elements, like building envelope materials, design and insulation, as well as operationally efficient through lighting, heating, cooling and water usage to name a few.

As government regulatory requirements enhance both the resiliency and sustainability of our built environment, other organizations such as the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and Green Globes, encourage building owners and operators to focus on these three things:

  • Go beyond the minimum regulatory requirements.
  • Expand into greater sustainability design and operations to create a more sustainable future.
  • Continue to add more resilient buildings.

That will hopefully leave the world a better place for our children than we found it.

By Chris Renegar
Director of Architecture
Chris Renegar Director of Architecture