Why High Performance Buildings matter more than ever in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and Sandy Hook

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As I reflect on recent events in 2012, I find myself more than ever recognizing the importance of high performance buildings in 2013 and beyond – smarter, sustainable, resilient and safer places to live, work, learn and play.

Happy New Year to all of our colleagues who are committed to building sustainable, high performance buildings, and who are renewing our old buildings, all over the world. We are on a mission, and we know that in order to be successful, we need to make sure that these buildings perform on multiple levels. So let’s talk a bit about the requirements of a high performance building….

Well, why do we have buildings anyway? Maslow’s hierarchy of needs reminds us that at a very basic level, we need our physiological needs to be met – basic needs like food, water, and shelter. And as soon as we have the basics, we need safety and security.


Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs

We then want spaces where we can live with family, places where we can learn, and grow, and at the higher levels, where we can express ourselves through our work in the world. Spaces = buildings of all sorts… like homes, schools, and office buildings, and places designed for very special purposes, like laboratories, hospitals, data centers, hotels, airports, sports stadiums, and manufacturing facilities.

In the past 2 months, we have experienced some threats to our safety and security that drive home the importance of focusing on the first two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy – handling our survival needs. We are experiencing more frequent threats of severe weather like Hurricane Sandy, which bring devastation to the buildings where we live, work, learn and play. When the buildings and the supporting infrastructure like roads, subways and utilities aren’t designed to be resilient in the face of rising waters and high winds, people are forced into survival mode, and the rest of us whom may not be directly impacted are also driven to imagine solutions to address these threats.


Bloomberg Cover "It's Global Warming, Stupid"
Bloomberg Cover “It’s Global Warming, Stupid”

Source: Bloomberg; https://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-11-01/weather-on-steroids-is-global-warming-stupid-paul-barrett.html

And what about our longer term needs? As quoted in the above Bloomberg article, “on Oct. 17 the giant German reinsurance company Munich Re issued a prescient report titled Severe Weather in North America. Globally, the rate of extreme weather events is rising, and “nowhere in the world is the rising number of natural catastrophes more evident than in North America.” According to Munich Re, “from 1980 through 2011, weather disasters caused losses totaling $1.06 trillion.” Munich Re found “a nearly quintupled number of weather-related loss events in North America for the past three decades.”

This is not just a North American problem. The same paper reported “an increase factor of 4 in Asia, 2.5 in Africa, 2 in Europe, and 1.5 in South America.”

Events like these remind us that we are dealing with a changing climate, and whether or not we agree on the causes, we can see the need for climate adaptation, and for built-in resilience, which can also point to a need for energy reliability in the wake of the storm, so that we are not forced to evacuate our sick from hospitals, for example.

And then there was another event – the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School – which shook us to the core, and reminded us again of the importance of safety and security. We must feel safe, especially in places of learning, where we nurture young minds, the future problem solvers and innovators of our world. We must find ways to keep our children safer, and to minimize the damage that can be wrought by one person on a really bad day.

And then there is the “fiscal cliff”, and the overarching theme of economic stability, growth and viability. At home, at work and at play, the basic laws of economics apply. We expect a cost/benefit trade-off. We expect that better solutions will cost more, and we make decisions based on perceived value.

I live in Tully, New York, so I personally experience these particular events that are “closer to home”, but of course, these kinds of events happen all over the world, from the devastating tsunami in Japan in March 2011, to the horrible shooting at a youth summer camp in Norway in July 2011. Our needs for safety and security are human needs and they are global.

So we need to get smarter and more innovative in order to address these challenges. We have a “burning platform”, if we are paying attention to world events. We have the technology to do much more than what we are doing in mainstream buildings, as we discussed recently in a panel “From Case Study to Mainstream – Barriers and Enablers on the Path to Smart, High Performance Buildings” at Greenbuild. We can do so much better than building to “meet code”, or minimum standards. And very often, we can do it in a way that brings us good value for our money. Certainly, we need to look at the costs of safe, sustainable, resilient buildings, campuses, and cities in more ways than just financial payback. The cost of not making these changes can be measured in loss of human life, and a threat to the most basic human needs – access to shelter, food and water.

Consider this a call to action to our industry. Now let’s get to work – and make 2013 the year of the high performance building.

P.S. We don’t actually need disasters in order for these better, smarter buildings to make perfect sense. To understand more why, check out this June 2012 whitepaper: Why Invest in High Performance Buildings, and other relevant whitepapers by my colleagues at Schneider Electric.

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