Making The Case For Resilient Design

Minot, North Dakota, June 2011 by DVIDSHUB/CC BY 2.0

I have never quite figured out what sustainable design is; the word has become so mushy and meaningless. But there is a big overlap with it and resilient design, a conscious choice to use simpler, repairable, resilient systems. Over that what I consider to be the best resource in green design, BuildingGreen.com, Alex Wilson has been writing an important series on the main aspects of resilient design. I covered the introduction in Building Green Is No Longer Enough, It is Time To Build Resilient and the first few sections in How To Build a Resilient Design: Make it Smaller, Higher, Stronger and Warmer; here are the rest of his points.

The Stuv that dreams are made of/Promo image

Resilient Design: Emergency Renewable Energy Systems

What do you do when the power goes out? How long could you keep warm in winter? Alex looks at wood stoves (not very good, even the EPA approved ones make a lot of pollution.) Pellet stoves are better, but need electricity to operate the fan and the pellet supply mechanism. Then there is photovoltaic solar, which would need to be set up like an off-grid system, complete with inverters and batteries for when the grid goes down. Pricey.

Monarch /Promo image

Another approach is one our neighbours at the lake where I live in the summer use; they have a huge antique wood stove smack in the middle of their combined living/dining/kitchen area that they fire up when the power goes out. It radiates enough heat to warm the room, has a tank on the side to warm water, three burners and an oven. I doubt it meets EPA standards, but when it is off it makes a great island and conversation piece, and when it is on it does everything you need. More at Emergency Renewable Energy Systems

Resilient Design: Water in a Drought-Prone Era

As Alex notes, we have to design up front to rely on less water in the first place, through high efficiency fixtures, low water landscaping, low volume shower heads and efficient horizontal axis washing machines. TreeHugger has also promoted grey water systems to use even less water.

Rainwater Hog/Promo image

For a lot of people in North America, particularly those in the Great Lakes basin, water has never been a particular worry. When I renovated my house, I put 3/4" water lines to the Speakman heads because I liked the pressure to blow me across the room; since then I have learned that even when there is a lot of water, there is a lot of stuff that has to be done to get it to the shower, including treating it, and pumping it up the hill to the reservoir. The system can break down. Alex makes some very good, inexpensive suggestions to protect yourself.

There is much that we can learn from the Australians, who are like Fremen on Arrakis when it comes to water saving and storage. They have developed sophisticated systems like the Water Hog that can be integrated into the structure of your home so that they do not only store water, but provide thermal mass for passive heating and cooling systems. More at Resilient Design: Water in a Drought-Prone Era.

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Resilient Communities

Here is where it gets really interesting, because most people who think about resilience are watching Doomsday Preppers on National Geographic on their genset powered TVs. But in fact, people have lived in villages and towns for thousands of years because it is in fact the most resilient place to live; you have safety in numbers and others you can rely on. And ultimately, like so much else, it all comes down to the car. Alex writes:

Community resilience also relates to how well we could get along without our cars. In some future crisis, gasoline might become unavailable for an extended period of time, or a political upheaval somewhere could result in a quadrupling of the price of gasoline, which could price it out of reach for many. Additionally, without power, gasoline pumps at service stations don't work, so unless a service station has back-up power, its gasoline pumps won't work. How would we function without cars?

The answers: pedestrian and bike friendly, compact communities with mixed use developments, higher density and public transit, everything the Republican party and Agenda21ers are against.

That is the problem with the concept of Resilience; Some, like Cameron Tonkinwise of The New School, call it "militarized conservativeness, the worst of libertarianism in contexts of calamity." Unlike Cameron and Alex Steffen, who prefers "ruggedization", I think resilience can be positive and aspirational, and does not necessarily involve guns and ammo. More at Resilient Communities

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Local Food and Resilience

Our current food system delivers vast quantities of food at what are really unbelievably cheap prices; until very recently, food expenditures as a proportion of income had never been lower. But that has been changing recently as food costs have been increasing, and incomes have stagnated or gone backwards. That is only going to get worse, as we feed more corn to cars than we do to animals and people. The system already operates on a knife-edge; thousands can be poisoned when e-coli gets into spinach because it is all bagged and shipped from the factory farms in California. There is no diversity of sourcing; In Canada two years ago, dozens died from listeria poisoning from one dirty machine in Toronto.

Then there are the possibilities of more systemic failures. Alex writes:

If some sort of crisis causes a shortage of diesel fuel, grocery shelves will be depleted in a matter of days. And if severe, extended drought occurs in the West combined with a lack of winter snowpack in the Rockies, the Colorado River--upon which much of California's most productive farmland is dependent--might not deliver enough water, causing food shortages and skyrocketing prices.

A local food system is much more resilient and flexible, and good for the local economy. Alex also notes that people can also be part of the system by growing their own:

Food production can be even more local than nearby farms. We learned during World War II that Americans have the capacity to grow a significant fraction of their vegetables at home. As much as 40% of fresh produce consumed by Americans during the War was produced in homeowners' victory gardens, allowing more of the nation's farm output to be sent overseas to soldiers. While we have more than twice the population today, and thus less land per person, there is still significant potential for home gardens.

A summer's worth of canning at the Alter cabin/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

There is another thing that people used to do a lot of, that like farming and local food, is coming back with a vengeance, and that's canning. My wife writes about cooking local food for TreeHugger and Planet Green, and we eat pretty much a 19th century Ontario diet, no doubt similar to what they ate in Alex's Vermont. She shops at the farmers market when things are in season and local stuff is cheap, and spends much of August and September canning it. There are 800 jars of food in our basement; we eat it all winter in lieu of imported vegetables and fruits.

Read more at Local Food and Resilience, a fine place to end the series. It demonstrates that resilience is more than a hunker in the bunker, it is about a lifestyle that is healthy and independent but interconnected with community. It is a lifestyle that has been promoted since Aesop's Ant and the Grasshopper and the Three Little Pigs: be prepared and build tough.

See the whole series at BuildingGreen

Tags: Green Building | Living With Less | Local Food

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