Buildings should be able to withstand all sorts of disasters, says Doug Pierce, senior associate and architect at Perkins+Will’s Minneapolis office.
And not all of them have to be natural.
Pierce is the developer behind the RELi (pronounced rely) standard. It is a design rating and certification system that attempts to show how resilient a building or neighborhood is from disturbances. Extreme weather can be an example, but Pierce and his colleagues are encouraging builders and developers to also prepare for a wider variety of possibilities: from accidents involving hazardous materials to sudden changes in the economy or civil disturbances.
“Resiliency is about bouncing back from shocks,” Pierce said.
Earlier this month, the RELi standard was adopted by the Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI), the same group that administers LEED, a system that rates a building’s environmental characteristics.
In collaboration with its sister organization, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), GBCI is working to further refine RELi. Pierce is chairman of a national steering committee to develop the RELi system and spread it globally.
Pierce, who teaches a sustainability course at the University of Minnesota, started to think more about building resiliency following a series of shocks, including the economic downturn in 2008 and the floods in Duluth in 2012, that caused $100 million worth of damage.
Pierce connected with Mike Italiano, the president and chief executive of Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Market Transformation to Sustainability, to form a committee that worked over the course of two years to develop the RELi standards, which they published in 2014. It took another few years of promoting their standards to industry thought-leaders to build support before the USGBC decided to officially adopt the standards.
“The increasing frequency of dramatic events has brought an even greater urgency to create buildings and communities that are better adapted to a changing climate and better able to bounce back from disturbances and interruptions,” Mahesh Ramanujam, president and chief executive of USGBC and GBCI, said in a statement. “We are committed to scaling RELi to become a national and international rating system managed by USGBC and its partner Green Business Certification Inc.”
The RELi standard is scalable so that it can be applied to homes, office buildings, infrastructure and even entire cities, Pierce said. Perkins+Will has been doing pilot training for RELi-accredited professionals and hopes to soon double the number from about 10 to 20. The professionals help with the development of the documentation needed for RELi certification.
The way RELi is currently structured in its pilot mode is similar in format to the LEED rating system. Like LEED, there are requirements that need to be met for a project to be RELi-certified, such as emergency planning for common hazardous events, power backups, electrical surge protection and selected materials that are “socially, ecologically and environmentally responsible.”
There are numerous credits for buildings to earn, creating levels of differentiation similar to how there is a difference between a building that is simply LEED certified and one that is LEED Gold. The credits show how developers and architects can design buildings to confront issues, particularly those that may be harder to directly address than natural disasters. For example, a building can promote health by placing stairs prominently. Or its design can be used to promote social equality by using multilingual signs, having prayer rooms or gender-neutral bathrooms.
“RELi is really focused on the built environment. … What can the built environment actually help to encourage and improve?” Pierce said.
Some of the RELi system repeats sustainability factors found in LEED, but Pierce said the two standards have a range of differences.
“Sustainability and resilience are like two sides of the same coin,” Pierce said. “They are strongly related, but they have a different focus. Sustainability has been focused on mitigating chronic sorts of issues like climate change. Resilience is really focused on adapting to the shocks, the acute shocks.”
RELi depends not only on just the one project or development, but it also takes into account the resilience of the surrounding area’s infrastructure. The idea is for people to look outside their individual properties to view resiliency as a communitywide goal, Pierce said.
“You got to look bigger than just your property,” he said.
There are some projects that are already incorporating RELi principals even though the system is still in beta mode. The Bell Museum + Planetarium at the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus is one example. The $79.2 million project, expected to be completed next summer, has a water infiltration basin for stormwater and a rainwater harvesting pond that can help with bouts of extreme rain or drought.