resilient design sustainable interconnected

Resilient Thinking: Design for a Changing World


Resilience is a word first associated with design in the context of cities responding to disaster like the Great Chicago Fire or Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.  Now it has become broader in scope and is rapidly replacing “sustainable” as the ethos for forward-thinking designers and pops up both in eco-minded press like Inhabitat and Treehugger and in mainstream design media like Architect, Dwell, Metropolis, and the New York Times.

We can’t predict the course of climate change, but we surely need to prepare for drought, extreme weather patterns, growing populations and increasing urbanization.  Disaster doesn’t always mean a hurricane, or even a drought; damage just as terrible can be inflicted by systemic inter-generational oppression and inequity.  How will designers address these problems?

We need to design buildings which are resilient.

Re·sil·ient  /rəˈzilyənt/  adjective

able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions.


Fundamentally, all good design should be resilient design.

Designers have always been tasked with seeing the broadest picture they can grasp – seeing beyond the direct requests of clients to address structural integrity, foresee the permit process, and solve problems before they come up.  In the rapidly changing and interconnected world, our view needs to grow even wider to incorporate global thinking into the design for individual buildings.

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Resilience vs. Sustainablility

Resilient design encompasses all the aspects of of sustainable design … and goes much further.  In addition to considering environmental resources and impact, it addresses social equity, response to changing weather and climate, and future uses for buildings and objects to make them more robust and durable.

We need address two unsettling facts:

  • The world today has a number of conditions we may not want to sustain: chemicals in air and water, dropping species counts, diminishing resources, and wide-spread social inequity and systemic oppression.  There is plenty we don’t want to sustain.
  • And at the same time, we may not be able to sustain even the environmental quality that we have right now.  We can’t stop global temperatures from rising, or existing resources from continuing depletion.  We may not be able to sustain current conditions, anyway.

The difference between resilient and sustainable design can be a matter of perspective.

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A building covered in solar cells and boasting a computer controlled efficient HVAC system doesn’t do much good after it is flooded by a storm.  Nor does it better the planet if its materials are mined under terrible conditions half way around the globe by underpaid people. Resilient design takes a wider view than the building or object itself and addresses the full context of design choices.

How Do We Create Resilient Design?

Develop Diversity Among Designers 

Diverse groups make for more successful design solutions than homogeneous ones.  We can foster equity by diversifying the design profession.  The more design is carried out by local experts, the more likely it is to respond to local conditions.  

Emphasize Equity

All designers, regardless of specialty, need to appreciate the importance of design for the social good.  The last generation has accepted, if not always embraced, the need to address sustainability in buildings.  We need to expand that awareness to include wider parameters for social and environmental good in buildings.

Create a Broader Definition of Client

Just as full cost accounting can reveal how much each driver’s dollar is subsidized by society, we can acknowledge how much each individual building is part of a neighborhood, city, ecosystem and planet.

Prioritize Objectives over the Object  

All of the above demands a deep an understanding that design goes beyond creating a building. All design is manifesting a changed future and we want to make those changes count.  Being open minded about the impacts of design decisions will help us think and work creatively to minimize and mitigate the impact of our buildings.  

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It is great that the design community is starting to address the full interconnectedness of our world.

When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.

– John Muir

All of this is so exciting and feels very aligned with moss’s current philosophy and practice: working with existing buildings, reusing simple materials, considering impacts on the wider environment. When each design is viewed as a potential positive force in the world, we can see the future as a positive place again.