Resilient Design Protects Against Natural Disasters and Accelerates Recovery
December 14, 2017 Ricardo Álvarez-Díaz
resilient design

Key Principles, Characteristics and Applications of Resilient Design

You’ve either been there or seen the photos and videos: Houston under water after Hurricane Harvey, Florida and Caribbean islands battered by Irma, central and southern Mexico cities crushed by powerful earthquakes, widespread damage in Puerto Rico, Dominica and U.S. Virgin Islands due to Maria, and now California is burning again with a new round of increasingly menacing wildfires.

In the face of these devastating natural disasters, designing resilient buildings has become more important than ever, tasking architects and developers with incorporating innovative design and building techniques that improve resiliency. But let’s start at the beginning.

What Is Resilient Design?

Resilience is the power or capacity to return to an original form, size, shape or position after being bent, compressed, stretched or deformed. It is also the ability to recover quickly from or adjust to difficulties, adversity or change. A resilient person or object can adapt to changing conditions and bounce back quickly after a disruption or crisis.

Resilient design is the calculated design of buildings and other structures or spaces to make them able to withstand natural or man-made disasters and recover rapidly. Resilient housing and commercial buildings are meant to maintain livable or workable conditions during interruptions in basic services (electricity, water, etc.) and disturbances resulting from climate change such as warmer temperatures, rising sea levels, intensified storms and wildfires.

Principles and Characteristics of Resilient Design

Here are some of the key principles and characteristics of resilient design.

1. Adaptability. City infrastructure and systems are designed to adapt quickly to changing conditions and recover from disasters and service interruptions.

2. Safe failure. This principle allows a system to absorb sudden shocks or the cumulative effects of slow-onset stress in ways that avoid catastrophic failure. Interdependence of systems that support each other keeps failure in one component from causing others to fail.

3. Diversity. Increasing diversity of ecosystems, economies, food sources and social systems improves adaptability, helping these respond to change, interruptions or failure of one particular system. Resilient systems have multiple ways of performing a function and assets physically distributed to avoid all of them being affected at the same time by an adverse event.

4. Simplicity. Simple, manual-override systems are more resilient than complex systems that can break down more easily and that require more maintenance.

5. Durability. Strategies that increase durability in design and building practices also increase resilience.

6. Redundancy. Interacting components made of similar parts can replace each other when any of them fail. Redundancy of key infrastructure systems, such as power grids, fuel supply, waste processing and potable water and food supply, ensures that when one of these systems is disrupted, operations will continue while the affected system is repaired or replaced.

7. Feedback sensitivity. Adequate feedback sensitivity enables a system to detect and respond to changes throughout the system quickly, thus resulting in increased resilience.

8. Environmental responsiveness and integration. A city’s resilience improves when it is responsive to its natural environment and resources. The more integrated its infrastructure is with the environment, the more resilient it will be when facing natural disasters and the cheaper it will be to maintain.

9. Local, renewable and reclaimed resources. Reliance on abundant local resources, products and services provides greater resilience than dependence on nonrenewable resources or those transported from distant places.

10. Community. A strong, culturally and economically diverse community in which people know and help each other is more likely to survive a disaster and recover from it.


Resilient Design Applications

The extensive damage and human suffering caused by natural and man-made disasters remind us that we must always think about the long-term picture in order to design and build durable structures that can adapt to changing conditions and stand the test of time.

A resilient building can endure both normal, everyday use as well as disaster scenarios that are probable in that area. Resilient design is location specific. Architects in Florida and the Caribbean, for instance, should design buildings that can withstand hurricane-force winds and torrential rains, while architects in California must consider seismic activity and wildfires.

Following are some of the applications and considerations of resilient design.

  • Emergency resiliency and disaster preparedness: consider all sources of everyday stress and possible disaster scenarios.
  • Extreme weather (storms, hurricanes, flooding, drought): consider severe wind load, heavy precipitation and ground-level flooding.
  • Seismic activity: use new technology and building methods that allow structures to be more ductile and to withstand earthquakes.
  • Extreme heat and cold: plan for life-saving natural heating and cooling options in the event of a disaster and power outage, including proper insulation, natural ventilation and shading devices.
  • Fire resistance: beyond building codes that protect against fire hazards, fire resistance consists of measures that address fires caused by natural and man-made disasters.
  • Infrastructure failure and power outages: backup systems (on high floors, not the basement), off-grid heating and cooling, daylighting techniques, etc., used to keep buildings operational and comfortable for people when electricity fails.
  • Everyday resiliency and normal wear and tear: durable building envelopes (sealing, insulation, moisture protection) as well as long-lasting and low-maintenance interiors capable of enduring decades of constant use.
  • Interior finishes: durable doors and entrance points, protected walls, sealed windows and floors capable of resisting high traffic, especially at the entrance where the right kind of flooring can stop dirt and moisture from spreading throughout the building.

resilient design

There Is No Sustainability Without Resiliency

To be truly sustainable, buildings need to be resilient. As sustainable design and development continue to gain momentum, LED lighting, solar panels and low-flow toilets will not suffice. Architects and developers must think long-term and consider the worst-case scenarios when aiming to create resilient and sustainable buildings, communities and cities.

Sources:  Institute for Social and Environmental Transition-International,, Resilient Design Institute, Climate & Development Knowledge Network,


  1. Gonzalo Vela Gómez 4 years ago

    Muchas gracias, estimado Ricardo por compartir este importante artículo

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