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Passive Survivability

A New Design Priority for the 21st Century.

06/2006

By Alex Wilson

In the wake of hurricane Katrina, vulnerability of our buildings has emerged as a major concern. And it’s not just hurricanes that should worry us: A 1995 heat wave in Chicago killed more than 700 people who lacked air conditioning; a massive January 1998 ice storm in eastern Canada left 4 million people without power and forced 600,000 from their homes; and a European heat spell in 2003 killed 30,000 people.

A dramatic increase in the frequency and severity of storms affected the Gulf Coast between 1995 and 2004 as compared with the previous ten-year period.
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Terrorism may be an even greater concern. A few well-placed bombs could disable a large percentage of the United States’ power grid and natural gas distribution lines. Energy guru Amory Lovins, of the Rocky Mountain Institute, points out that stopping the flow of oil in winter could turn the Alaska Pipeline into an 800-mile candle, cutting off that supply for weeks or months.

Even without a catastrophic event, as world oil production capacity fails to keep up with demand, many experts are predicting fuel supply shortages. There simply may not be enough energy to go around in the not too distant future.

These vulnerabilities point to the urgent need to adopt a new building design criteria: passive survivability. Our buildings, especially homes, apartment buildings, schools, and hospitals, should be designed and built to maintain livable conditions in the event of an extended power outage, fuel supply interruption, or water shortage. Key elements of passive survivability include:These vulnerabilities point to the urgent need to adopt a new building design criteria: passive survivability. Our buildings, especially homes, apartment buildings, schools, and hospitals, should be designed and built to maintain livable conditions in the event of an extended power outage, fuel supply interruption, or water shortage. Key elements of passive survivability include:

STORM RESILIENCE. Buildings should be able to withstand more severe storms. With global warming upon us, 100-year storms are showing up every decade or two. Strict building codes for storm resistance, such as the Miami–Dade County building code, should be adopted throughout much of the country.

BUILDING SCALE. In considering vulnerability, perhaps tall buildings don’t make sense. As argued in Adapting Buildings and Cities for Climate Change by Sue Roaf (Architectural Press, 2005), tall buildings require high power densities to operate, can generate only a small fraction of that power (due to their geometries), and cannot be accessed in the event of power loss. Low-rise buildings may be better.

PASSIVE DESIGN. Buildings should maintain livable thermal conditions in the event of extended loss of power or heating fuel. We know how to design energy-efficient building envelopes and provide cooling-load avoidance, natural ventilation, and passive solar heating. These strategies should be incorporated into all buildings as standard practice; to do otherwise should be unconscionable.

DAYLIGHTING. Natural daylighting, which enables buildings to be occupied without electricity for lighting during the daytime, should become standard practice.

RENEWABLE ENERGY. Using renewable sources, including photovoltaics (PV), wind, and biomass to generate some electricity on-site should become standard practice. During normal operation, such systems might contribute only a small fraction of a building’s electricity load, but during power outages, advanced controls should reconfigure loads so that critical needs can be met. For homes, solar water-heating systems that operate without electricity or that use PV-powered pumps should become standard.

MECHANICAL SYSTEMS. Even when we have plenty of gas and fuel oil, conventional heating systems cannot operate without electricity. HVAC equipment should be retooled to operate using DC power from on-site PV modules during power outages.

WATER STORAGE. On-site rainwater collection and storage should be provided as a component of passive survivability.

Many of the passive survivability strategies outlined here will be familiar to the sustainable design community. By and large, these are the same strategies we use to make buildings greener. Passive survivability is not so much a new way of designing buildings as a new argument for green design.—and one we can no longer afford to ignore.

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This article appeared in the June 2006 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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