Resilience and the Building Facade | Part Two

Monday, April 21, 2014
By Mic Patterson

“Resilience and the Building Facade” is an ongoing series in coordination with the Facades+ conference. In 2014, conference stops in New York City (April 24-25), Chicago (July 24-25) and Dallas (October 30-31) will facilitate a dialogue about the topic of resilience, its meaning, and its significance to the building profession. Part One is available here.

Part Two | Bending Like Bamboo

“The bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists.” – Japanese Proverb

As highly glazed facades began their rise to prominence in the 1970s, an engineer’s inclination was to develop a stiff structural system to minimize movement stresses upon glass. But this materiality of deflection resistant facades was at odds with the growing pursuit of transparency. This led to experimentation and development of glass systems to accommodate the large deflections characteristic of tensile structures. The advantages of structuresdesigned to accommodate considerable movement were soon recognized. Like the stringed web of a tennis racket, a cable-net facade is able to absorb the energy of wind gusts through deflection and recovery. Increasing the resistance to these deflections increases the stresses to the structural system. Structures capable of accommodating high deflections have proven to have advantages in extreme loading conditions, including blast and high impact events. Of course deflections must be controlled — capacity to resist is the essence of structural design — but resilience is a complimentary attribute that brings important enhancements to engineering practice (parallels are evident in the evolution of seismic design).

Resistance is to oppose, and resilience is to bend. Resilience is about change. Not the ability to resist change, but the capacity to adapt in the face of changing conditions. This is not an unrestrained abandonment to the forces of change, but a calculated release of the desirable as a means to preserve the essential.

Resilience is the capacity to adapt to changing conditions and to maintain or regain functionality and vitality in the face of stress or disturbance. It is the capacity to bounce back after a disturbance or interruption of some sort (Resilient Design Institute, 2012).

Social change comes about in two general ways: through inspiration, which requires visionary and motivated leadership, and through the press of necessity. The former is sadly lacking, but pressure is being brought to bear by the developing effects of climate change. There seems no greater pressure point than the economy. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tracks the occurrence of weather/climate related disasters resulting in damages of over $1 billion (Smith et al. 2013). Results for 2013 have yet to be reported, but 2012 included 11 events totaling $114.6 billion that have garnered considerable attention (in comparison, the President’s 2012 budget request for the Department of Education was $77.4 billion). Hurricane Sandy is included amongst these 2012 events, accounting for more than half the damages at $65 billion. While Sandy has fueled the resiliency movement, it is not the sole culprit in a climate of escalating shocks and stresses. The ongoing US drought and heat wave tallied $30 billion, and while the drought has moderated in some areas of the nation, it has deepened in the southwest, which has experienced consecutive years of record low rainfall.

While environmental and social impacts may go ignored or unnoticed, economic impacts quickly garner attention. As with most threats, opportunity can also be found. The actual manifestations of climate change may act as a driver of social change in a manner that the abstraction of prevention could not. The disaster resilience focus on the threat to human health and key life-supporting infrastructure may engage planning, policy and funding strategies at a far broader scale than has been achieved through sustainability initiatives. FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate spoke to this at a 2012 event:

“We cannot afford to continue to respond to disasters and deal with the consequences under the current model. Risk that is not mitigated, that is not considered in return on investment calculations, will often set up false economies. We will reach a point where we can no longer subsidize this.” – Craig Fugate, FEMA Administrator

Severe storms pounding the eastern seaboard and flooding coastal communities, immobilizing transportation networks, disrupting critical energy, water distribution and waste handling systems — all disasters measured in human lives and property damage through the immediacy of network media — are far less of an abstraction than the problems resulting from the relentless pumping of invisible gases into the atmosphere, regardless of any causal relationship between the two.

But climate related problems are not the only measure of resilience. Other sources of natural disaster range from seismic events to solar flares. And then there is the manmade variety: political turmoil and social unrest that can result in acts of terrorism and disruption to our supply of water, electricity, fuel, medicine, and other essential resources. Resource scarcity, cost volatility, and supply disruptions resulting from aging and overstressed infrastructure can have equally troublesome impacts. All are the impetus for the expanding resilience dialogue, but how do they manifest in the design of buildings and building systems?

Resilient Design: How Buildings Fare in the Aftermath

Buildings can be designed to resist hurricane wind loads, but disaster resistance is not the same as disaster resilience. We have learned to design buildings that resist, but have much to learn about designing buildings that bend. As Andrew Zolli pointed out in 2012 New York Times piece, Lower Manhattan is a newly developed area consisting of the latest crop of LEED rated high-rise buildings, which by all rights should have performed well in the wake of hurricane Sandy. Instead it was among the hardest hit areas of the region. Problems may start at the infrastructure scale with flooding and power outages, but the impact is ultimately to buildings and their occupants, and these impacts suggest that there may be things missing from the point spread of the building rating system.

Take my Lower Manhattan apartment for example: a 56-story LEED Silver Certified high-rise completed in 2007. The building was in the flood zone, without power or water for a full week, and no emergency generators or fuel system. Coincidentally, I was scheduled to be on the west coast for a month, leaving New York just days before Sandy.

By the time I returned things were back to normal by all appearances, but the aftermath still lived with the building occupants present during the storm. The environmental shock had produced a lifestyle shock, as residents that remained in the city made daily treks up and down 50 plus floors for simple necessities such as water and food. Even from a distance, it became easy to imagine life threatening food and water scarcity scenarios. The objectives of resilient design are best formulated when the lights go out. Many considered abandoning the high-rise lifestyle, and some did.

Part Two of this series established the drivers of the resilience dialogue, and the opportunity for resilience to drive needed social change in a manner that has thus far resisted the efforts of the green building movement. Part Three will examine how resilient design strategies differ from the green building practices we’ve been implementing as an industry in recent years. We encourage you to participate in the dialogue by joining us at an upcoming Facades+ event, or by sending your comments

About the Author

Mic Patterson, LEED AP [BD+C], has made a career study of building facades, participating in the design, fabrication and installation of a remarkably diverse body of novel applications. He founded ASI Advanced Structures Inc in 1991, the firm that pioneered the introduction of advanced facade technology in the US marketplace. Enclos, a leading global curtain wall firm, acquired ASI in 2007. Patterson subsequently participated in the establishment of the Advanced Technology Studio of Enclos, a facade think tank located in downtown Los Angeles, where he works as the Vice President of Strategic Development. Patterson earned a Masters of Building Science degree from the School of Architecture at the University of Southern California, where he is currently a PhD candidate. He has taught, written extensively and lectured on diverse aspects of advanced facade technology. He is the author of "Structural Glass Facades and Enclosures," published by Wiley in 2011


Smith, Adam, Neal Lott, Tamara Houston, Karsten Shein, and Jake Crouch. 2013. Billion-Dollar U.S. Weather/Climate Disasters 1980-2013. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Climatic Data Center Asheville, NC. Accessed April 12, 2014.

Rainwater, Brooks, Tatyana Brown, Payton Chung, and Cooper Martin. “Resilient Design: Preparing for an Uncertain Future.” In Cities as a Lab: Designing the Innovation Economy. The American Institute of Architects. Accessed March 26, 2014.

Resilient Design Institute 2012. Accessed April 10, 2014.
Zolli, Andrew. “Learning to Bounce Back.” New York Times. November 2, 2012. Accessed March 26, 2014.