Smart Buildings

Does Technology Make Buildings More or Less Resilient?

Resilience is the ability to overcome future challenges, both the expected and the unexpected. The term has been used increasingly in the buildings industry in recent years, alongside other terms such as sustainability and continuity. However, while sustainability and continuity are focused on survival, the true goal of resilience is to thrive despite challenges. Resilience is about bouncing back, learning lessons, adapting, and becoming better. As buildings evolve into smart buildings and many things evolve into connected things, we ask — has all this technology made buildings more resilient or less resilient? In the most traditional sense, the resilience of buildings is measured by their ability to withstand the challenges of their environment. Early buildings were designed to shelter occupants from weather, for example, so buildings in areas with low-temperatures and high-precipitation would need to be insulated and waterproof to be resilient, whereas buildings in hot deserts would need to manage the heat and wind […]

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Resilience is the ability to overcome future challenges, both the expected and the unexpected. The term has been used increasingly in the buildings industry in recent years, alongside other terms such as sustainability and continuity. However, while sustainability and continuity are focused on survival, the true goal of resilience is to thrive despite challenges. Resilience is about bouncing back, learning lessons, adapting, and becoming better. As buildings evolve into smart buildings and many things evolve into connected things, we ask — has all this technology made buildings more resilient or less resilient?

In the most traditional sense, the resilience of buildings is measured by their ability to withstand the challenges of their environment. Early buildings were designed to shelter occupants from weather, for example, so buildings in areas with low-temperatures and high-precipitation would need to be insulated and waterproof to be resilient, whereas buildings in hot deserts would need to manage the heat and wind to thrive. Consequently, buildings in rainy parts of the world developed slanted roofs and drainage systems, while those in the desert evolved from ventilated and repairable tents to ventilated and shaded courtyard architecture.

In the modern age, the ability to withstand common weather conditions is a given, but nature still presents less common challenges in the form of natural disasters. Earthquake prone cities such as Tokyo or San Francisco pride themselves on the seismic resilience of their iconic buildings, while the lack of resilient buildings in earthquake prone cities such as Mexico City and Santiago raises resilience concerns among disaster relief experts. True earthquake resilience comes from building design and construction but structural health technologies can be retrospectively applied to identify critical issues for repair, and therefore increase resilience against disaster.

“Emergency preparedness is really thinking about what happens when the disaster happens — who gets told when not to come to the office, what gets turned off, who puts out the sandbags,” says Jim Newman, founder and principal of Linnean Solutions and a member of the board of directors of the Resilient Design Institute. “But resilience is a different thing — resilience is how you can prepare the facility and the organization to be able to withstand disruptions and changes and learn from them and get stronger.”

Today, we are experiencing a very different kind of disaster with the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic. While our buildings are not springing leaks or collapsing in the face of this crisis, they have certainly not been thriving either. To thrive suggests there must be an objective and, as with weather and disaster resilience, the objectives of buildings are not simply to remain standing but to succeed in protecting and serving their occupants. So, while constructing strong buildings for storms, quakes, fires, and floods is certainly an important element of resilience, the concept actually goes much further, as we have seen during COVID-19.

Hospitals have been overflowing, not able to meet the demands of the pandemic. Resilience in this sense is the ability to increase capacity. Smart technology is often symbolized by employee, asset, and other monitoring to improve efficiency, for example, which in turn increases capacity. Air quality monitoring, meanwhile, can reduce the spread of infection to protect more staff and support faster recovery, and therefore increase capacity. While access control and surveillance can reduce security risks and disruptions to optimize operations for more capacity. All these smart technologies can help support resilience in healthcare facilities and society as a whole.

Commercial buildings, on the other hand, have been largely empty during COVID but also didn’t thrive in the face of the pandemic. The objective of office buildings is to provide a safe, secure, and productive environment for workers, therefore a pandemic-resilient office building would have been able to offer that despite the virus. To build such resilience, buildings could have already employed occupancy and space analytics, air quality monitoring, contactless entry, contact tracing, and other technologies, as many are belatedly doing now to bring workers back. Even empty office buildings could have been more resilient by reducing their power consumption, for example, as discussed in our 2020 article ‘Developing a Stand-By Mode for Buildings in the COVID-Era’.

Technology certainly has the ability to build resilience in many ways, but it also makes us more vulnerable in others. In fact, simply by relying on technology we create vulnerability. As we increasingly depend on technology for security, health, safety, comfort, and communication in our buildings, our resilience to power outages, for example, decreases more and more. Buildings can’t stop depending on electricity altogether but they can manage their energy systems in a more resilient way by installing backup power and energy storage, generating their own power, and increasing energy efficiency. It’s not just about being able to react to specific challenges but about being better prepared for a wide range of potential challenges.

“Building resilience is about planning for the unexpected, and there seem to be a lot more unexpected events than used to be the case, especially as the impacts of a changing climate become more significant,” says Alex Wilson, founder of BuildingGreen and president of the board of directors of the Resilient Design Institute. “Redundancy is important, and it may make sense to have multiple levels of backup power. For businesses that rely on the Internet for key services, backup power for servers, computers, cable modems, and routers, it is highly important. It might make sense to have redundant backup power for those systems.”

Modern technology is also increasingly connected, creating another vulnerability for buildings. From exposed devices to unsecured infrastructure, and a lack of accountability, the smart buildings industry has created a paradise for hackers to steal information, maliciously control systems, and cripple entire networks, often with relative ease. The resilience problem here is usually not a lack of effective cybersecurity options but the lack of expertise and attention placed on securing every digital entry point in the building. The smart building is, of course, exponentially less resilient to cyberattacks than its less connected predecessors.

“All IoT devices present possible entry points for hackers. Letting any one of these go unprotected is the digital equivalent of leaving a small window open downstairs when you leave the premises,” says William Newton, president and MD of WiredScore, a firm providing digital infrastructure certification for buildings. “Everything that’s linked to your network – from lighting to the CCTV system to the elevators – needs to be subject to the same stringent security protocols as databases containing confidential information.”

Resilience is also about cutting costs over the lifetime of a building, which brings in other popular building concepts such as future proofing, to thrive in future technology landscapes, and the design-build-operate divide, to serve occupants better. Technology approaches can certainly support resilience in that regard. Resilience can also be about thriving in changing market conditions, whether continuing to generate value in real estate markets or attract talent in labor markets. Beyond the location of the building, technology can provide market resilience by future proofing to stay up-to-date and retain value or using smart tech to make the building an attractive place to work.

The ability to overcome future challenges is a broad and highly significant characteristic for buildings, which could last for decades or longer, if they are resilient. Resilience comes from a wide range of factors and positively supports buildings in a wide variety of ways, making it extremely valuable and somewhat complex. However, the essence of resilience in buildings is being able to thrive in the face of change, and the simple approach to bring about resilience is to be forward-thinking and mindful when designing, constructing, and operating our buildings. We know that technology is able to support resilience in buildings, we just need to make sure that we are also resilient to the challenges that such technology brings.

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