If You Build it . . . Will it be Resilient, Equitable, and Healthy?

by Alana Spencer

Be a sustainability catalyst, for your team, project, company — it’s everyone’s responsibility. Our responsibility includes design for buildings and spaces that incorporate resiliency, social equity, and health/wellness strategies.

Design, construction, and operations teams must evaluate the risks (short- and long-term) their buildings and spaces will face in their climate region, as climate changes with increased severity of natural disasters, economic inequality, and increased global warming potential.


Designers, planners, owners, operators should plan for a wide range of natural disasters or disturbances as well as consider longer-term trends affecting building performance such as changing climate conditions. Resilient design is identifying the potential risks that could affect the site and how to address these issues for mitigation, business continuity, disaster preparedness, and post-disaster recovery.

To encapsulate resilient design for climate changes, here are strategies that should be addressed at early stages to be implemented into design to ensure reasonable building functionality through climate change.

Mitigation and adaptation measures for reducing emissions of a project, stabilizing the levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and adapting to the climate change:

Federal Courthouse, Harrisburg, Pa.
Target: LEED Gold with 65%+ GHG reduction,
Resilient/climate adaptive to region,
community-minded SITES design.

  • Low-carbon building design and construction.
  • High-performing building envelope.
  • All-electric building; smart-grid ready.
  • Energy recovery ventilation.
  • Daylighting/lighting/controls.
  • Critical systems located higher than flood plain.
  • Onsite renewables with storage.

Rising sea levels and more frequent extreme storms increase the probability of coastal and river flooding:

  • Watertight utility conduits.
  • Hardened/resilient ground-floor construction.
  • Increased infiltration design through landscape architecture.
  • Stormwater back-flow prevention.
  • Raise surrounding site elevation to prevent flooding.

Strategies that would support rapid recovery after a weather event and accommodate future building changes that respond to climate change:

  • Temporary shutters and or barricades.
  • Resilient site design, materials, and construction.
  • Solar thermal.
  • Back-up energy systems and fuel.
  • Potable water/wastewater storage.

Social equity

As many communities prosper, the disparity of social equity can be the result: lack of affordable housing, fewer affordable educational opportunities are available, and less availability of living-wage employment are some of the negative effects.

Shining a light on social equity directs projects to address inequalities in access and social inequities within a project’s community. The goals of being equitable include creating fairer, healthier, more supportive communities; responding to needs of surrounding community for just distribution of benefits; and promoting human rights and equity practices for vulnerable/ disadvantaged communities.

  • Include affordable housing in residential projects; exclude local requirements.
  • Employ local workforce in design, construction, and operations.
  • Engage in community work programs.
  • Set pay at or above a living-wage.

To support meaningful transformation, project teams must begin to understand the various parts of the communities, its needs, and to propose ways within the project that address inequities. Effective community engagement is critical for development and implementation of social equity measures.

Health and wellness

High-performing, socially equitable design inevitably should encompass health and wellness-promoting features and be a driver in planning, design, construction, and operations.

The connection between buildings/spaces and their health strategies should positively impact us as occupants, residents, and employees.

Improved indoor air quality; enhanced water quality; promotion of healthy eating habits; lighting/surroundings to improve energy, mood, and productivity; encouragement of physical activity in daily life; distraction-free, productive, and comfortable indoor environment; and promotion of mental/emotional health all play a vital aspect of sustainable design.

Bringing it all together

As the sustainability catalyst, you’ll bring these crucial elements to fruition through proactive early analysis, compelling engagement, and sheer perseverance with strong goals rooted in resilient design, social equity and health/wellness.


Alana Spencer is the sustainability leader at Vanderweil Engineers.