Home AEC A Q&A: HGA Architects and Engineers’ Ariane Laxo

A Q&A: HGA Architects and Engineers’ Ariane Laxo

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Ariane Laxo, Resiliency, The Hoyt Organization,
Ariane Laxo | Photo: HGA Architects and Engineers

By Brittan Jenkins

The Puget Sound region has, as recently as last week, been experiencing a number of earthquakes, something that is a potentially huge threat to the infrastructure in our city. For this Q&A segment, we spoke with Ariane Laxo, CID, IIDA, LEED AP ID+C, EDAC, senior associate at HGA Architects and Engineers to find out more about resilient design, or making our buildings and infrastructure able to withstand natural disaster better. Laxo is spearheading research in this field and gave us some insight into the ways Seattle and the West Coast can integrate resiliency into design to create a smarter, more stable world.

How does resiliency coincide with sustainability, especially in Seattle and also in the Bay Area?

Resiliency and sustainability are intertwining concepts – there are unique aspects of each, but together they strengthen each other. Resiliency focuses on preparing for adverse events so that the community can bounce back quickly, perhaps even stronger than before. Adverse events may be in the form of long-term stressors (ex: aging population, sea level rise) or short-term shocks (ex: earthquake, extreme rain event). Climate change is a cause of both shocks and stressors, and while sustainability focuses on climate change mitigation, resiliency is about adaptation – better preparing for the changes in climate we are already seeing.

Seattle and San Francisco are both members of 100 Resilient Cities, a global initiative of the Rockefeller Foundation to deepen urban resilience. Led by a newly appointed chief resilience officer, Seattle will focus on building tools to increase resilience and better prepare for regionally specific shocks and stressors, including earthquakes, economic inequality and infrastructure failure. San Francisco has a bit of a headstart, having released its Resilience Strategy in 2016, and has been investing in community and infrastructure resilience, including a seawall fortification project. Earlier this month, I spoke at UC Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment’s Symposium on Resilient Design for Buildings, Communities and Cities alongside Brian Strong, San Francisco’s chief resilience officer. He talked about how the city has been leading by example on resilience and sustainability, exploring solar power, using LEED as a tool for energy savings and developing a Sea Level Rise Guidance for City Infrastructure. By pairing mitigation with adaptation, the city will be better prepared for the future, no matter what it brings.

Explain a little bit about the survivability aspect or the “unplugged mode” and what kind of planning and materials are needed for that?

When a building loses power for an extended period of time, can the indoor environment still be safe for people to shelter in place? This is a particularly critical question during temperature extremes – the hot summer or coldest winter months – and the solutions are examples of how sustainability and resiliency intertwine. Passive design strategies for maximized energy efficiency serve double duty as passive survivability measures. For example, a well-insulated building can minimize heat gain or loss. Natural ventilation will allow fresh air into the building and daylight access will minimize the need for emergency lighting. Design strategies like these can allow people to safely remain in a building longer during power outages.

San Francisco just recently had a major power outage affecting tens of thousands of people, how would implementing resilient design help cure that?

Power outages are becoming more common as we see temperatures rise and the electrical grid stressed with increased cooling demands. The path to resilience may include a multi-faceted approach: back-up power for critical services, increased energy efficiency to lower the energy demand on the grid (this will reduce the risk of a power outage occurring in the first place) and energy sources diversified with renewables. Some cities are exploring Net Zero Energy buildings, those that produce enough on-site renewable energy to meet their energy needs.

What’s the new LEED pilot for resilient design?

In the Innovation in Design credit category, design teams have the opportunity to try out new credits (pilot credits) as they are tested and assessed for potential adoption into the LEED rating system. In 2015, three pilot credits for resilience were approved and added to USGBC’s Pilot Credit library. The credits are designed to guide design teams in resilient design planning, identifying potential hazards to the project site and designing for the top hazards, exploring the impacts of climate change on the project site or establishing an emergency management plan and designing for passive survivability. At the moment, the credits are temporarily removed from the pilot credit library and will be re-released in the near future with updated references. In the meantime, teams can use them as a guide for making design decisions by referencing this post.

Seattle sits on a pretty major fault line, what’s the biggest threat to our city and for San Francisco/Bay Area?

Both cities have identified earthquakes as one of their largest threats. Given the high likelihood of a severe earthquake within the next few decades, this risk is one that both Seattle and San Francisco have prioritized in their resiliency planning efforts. Other threats include climate change, sea level rise and social inequity. With each threat comes a unique set of solutions, engaging citizens, organizations and government in a collaborative effort to prepare the entire community.

On a national level, what’s the biggest threat to our current design and infrastructure and why?

Climate change. There is a long list of associated risks, including sea level rise on the coasts, increased frequency and intensity of extreme precipitation events and associated flooding in addition to rising temperatures and deeper drought conditions like the recent multi-year drought in California. Our current infrastructure is underprepared for these risks, which is clear when sources of water run dry or become contaminated or when we see roads washed out and buildings flooded with major precipitation events. Even brand new infrastructure is not always preparing for climate change. Current best practice involves using historic weather data to inform architecture and engineering design, and since weather is changing so quickly, using 10-year-old data for a building that is opening in 2018 may not result in a design that is effective for 2018 weather. Mechanical and stormwater management systems are being stressed beyond design capacity, even within the first year a building is open.

The solution requires action at many levels: policy to encourage, incentivize or require resiliency planning, updated building codes and standards to use predictive climate information to inform design, the insurance industry offering reduced rates for buildings that have incorporated resilient design measures and owner demand. We need building owners and operators to shift from focusing only on first costs to a long-term investment mindset, including avoided costs from disasters in the return on investment conversation.

Resiliency, The Hoyt Organization, Seattle, Puget Sound
LA Harbor College’s Science Complex | Photo: HGA Architects and Engineers

What are some projects you’ve worked on that incorporate resilient design?

Since sustainability and resiliency are so interconnected, many projects have been incorporating resilient design strategies long before we started using the term. For example, hospitals require backup power to continue operating and safely evacuate patients in case of a power outage.

As another illustration, LA Harbor College’s Science Complex, a LEED Platinum certified building, incorporates on-site renewable energy and significant energy and water use reductions. In drought conditions, a site is far more resilient if it does not require water for irrigation and if water use is lower overall. Similarly, as an efficient building with on-site renewable energy, the Science Complex is far less likely to be negatively impacted by widespread power outages in the area.

More recently, we’ve been incorporating resiliency planning into the design process, holistically forecasting risks (climate change, natural disaster, infrastructure or security risks), assessing the likelihood and impact of those risks to prioritize which to invest in and designing for resiliency.

Other project examples have included: a border crossing project where we met GSA requirements for a Climate Risk Assessment during design, and design strategies for the primary risks included increasing the structural load capacity for increased snow loading on the roof; a manufacturing building that aimed to operate at Net Zero Energy where we evaluated the impact of future climate trajectories on the energy required to operate the building and adjusted the location of geothermal power on the site to allow for future expansion so the building can continue to operate at Net Zero Energy in the future; and several projects where we have used future climate data to inform the building design, maximizing the impact of passive design strategies in future climate conditions.

How big of a demand is there for this type of design and how much will it cost?

We have always seen a demand for certain types of resilience, though the concept of looking at all potential shocks and stressors and considering them in aggregate is a newer way to frame the conversation. For example, some projects have security risks as top-of-mind, whether a highly secure government building, a religious space or a workplace. At the building and site scale, we often start the conversation around holistic resilience with our clients, but at the city and community scale these conversations are already happening in many cases. I believe we will only see interest and urgency around resilient design growing in the near future.

The question about cost is a difficult one to answer, since it depends, as always, on the design strategies. In San Francisco, the Seawall Fortification Project that I mentioned earlier is estimated to cost $2 billion to $5 billion to fully replace the existing seawall that is vulnerable to earthquakes. Yet, when the city looks at potential damage that could occur to business and infrastructure were the wall to fail, the avoided costs would be much larger than this investment cost. From a building or site perspective, the cost to design for resilience may be insignificant if built into the design process or integrated into capital improvements already underway. For example, if a stormwater management system were being upgraded, it may not be significantly more expensive to use data for a 500-year storm event to inform the design, rather than a 100-year storm event.

What cities are you looking at now to model off of?

Seattle, San Francisco and other members of the 100 Resilient Cities set the benchmark for city-wide resilience. These cities have piloted and tested various tools and strategies for resilience, sharing broadly what has worked best. We are finding incredible resources in this network. As building industry professionals, we can plug into the city-wide conversations by bringing building and site-scale resilient design strategies to the table and, at the same time, look for opportunities to tap into district planning and resources. When each component of a system is prepared and can weather shocks and stressors, the whole system is strengthened and made more resilient.

What can people get involved in resilient design and what steps can people start taking now?

Building owners and operators of commercial and residential properties can incorporate resilience thinking into their infrastructure improvement planning. Look at what risks may impact your properties, and consider the likelihood and impact when deciding whether to invest in planning measures. Any building project should incorporate resilience, as this is the best time to incorporate resilient design measures and will be most cost effective. Use your cities as resources – try to understand what is happening for resilience at a wider community scale that you may be able to plug into.

At a minimum, building industry professionals can consider future climate in the design process. Download future climate files for your project site from IES, and use rainfall predictions for stormwater management system sizing from the EPA’s Storm Water Management Model – Climate Adjustment Tool (SWMM-CAT).

We rely on all parts of the system; planning and incorporating resilient strategies at all levels – national, state, city, community, site and individual – will make the entire system more resilient.