This is the Year of Climate Change and Health, a 12-month APHA-led initiative with monthly themes meant to raise awareness of and mobilize action on the health impacts of climate change. In September, we focus on Extreme Weather. Today’s guest blogger, Savannah Tarpey, LEED Green Associate, is sustainability and communities by design specialist at the American Institute of Architects. She works with AIA staff and member experts to advance national Disaster Assistance and Resilience programs. In today’s post, she offers solutions for creating healthier, safer and more resilient homes and businesses.

savannah-tarpey-3People in the US spend about 90 percent of their time indoors, so it’s no surprise that the design of buildings can impact public health and safety — especially during extreme weather. Material selection can improve respiratory health and reduce hazardous debris during a flood.

The construction type, form and configuration of a building affects how it will perform in high winds and earthquake forces; symmetrical building plans and low height-to-base ratios contribute to seismic and wind resilience. Passive heating and cooling strategies use less energy and, during a power outage, can help create more habitable temperatures.

Unfortunately, these valuable human health and safety opportunities are often overlooked in design and construction. Many home and business owners believe that building “to code” will keep them and their property safe during a hazardous event; yet some communities have inadequate or no building regulations in place to protect them.

Building codes afford minimal fire and safety protections and may not reflect current risk-tolerance for protection of property. Performance-based building design can create the healthy, safe and resilient homes and businesses that people desire.

Public health professionals can get involved with this process by encouraging the International Code Council (ICC) and code enforcement officials to work more closely with public health professionals in developing policies, procedures, technical content and enforcement practices for ICC codes. In the meantime, “design thinking” and other practices offer a systems-based approach.

Design thinking and resilience
Design thinking is critical to designing health-promoting and disaster-resilient buildings. Architects use design thinking to determine the client’s performance-based design needs centered on the service life of the building.

According to Jesse M. Keenan, a faculty member at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, design thinking is the “analysis of the natural and urban ecological forces, which shape the use and performance of a building. It acknowledges that the systems behind such forces have separate and unique capacities and cycles to accommodate change. This is even if such capacities and cycles are reciprocally dependent, in some measure, to the design and operations of a building.”

People in the US spend about 90 percent of their time indoors, so it’s no surprise that the design of buildings can impact public health and safety — especially during extreme weather.

This kind of systems-based approach can solve problems that building codes and other prescriptive methods simply can’t. Incorporating design thinking into all aspects of building design generates more opportunity — and the ability to leverage the resources and assets of the natural and urban environment — to build a structure that will contribute to a community’s resilience.

Designing for health and safety
As climate change brings more frequent and severe weather events, communities must prepare infrastructure to handle the impacts of natural disasters. For buildings, “passive sustainability” is a design technique used to maintain reasonable functionality and habitability in the event of an extended power outage or loss of heating fuel.

For example, if an office building designed with fixed glass windows has a power outage in the middle of July heat or January cold, temperatures inside can become uncomfortable and, for some, life threatening. Thoughtful design can prevent these situations, making buildings safer during power outages and episodes of extreme heat or cold.

This FEMA tornado shelter in Duncombe, Iowa, uses solar panels to keep operating costs low and provide a back-up energy source during a disaster. Photo credit: Tom Hurd

This FEMA tornado shelter in Duncombe, Iowa, uses solar panels to keep operating costs low and provide a back-up energy source during a disaster. Photo credit: Tom Hurd

More than ever, communities are building structures that protect health and safety and contribute to the overall well-being of the community. For example, Tom Hurd, AIA, of Spatial Designs designed the first recorded solar-powered FEMA tornado shelter in Duncombe, Iowa.

This structure shelters residents in times of disaster, but also is used by the community to host workshops and events. The addition of the solar and battery backup power makes it a safer and more valuable resource for the community because it saves money on electricity year-round and is continually prepared for a power outage.

Designing with hazard risk in mind can make a vast difference in improving the health and safety of communities. These extra fortifications and health considerations add only a small percentage to initial construction cost and often are well worth incorporating into building design in disaster-prone areas of the US.

Benefits of a better prepared building stock include:
• decreased exposure to toxins resulting from hazards, such as floods or tsunamis
• decreased risk of injury from compromised building materials during an earthquake or after tornadoes
• increased quantity of immediately habitable housing post-disaster

Partners in mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery
Architects can help mitigate threats to property and the public’s health through site selection, development parameters and building design choices. As licensed professionals, architects also can be valuable partners in responding to and recovering from disasters. Updated in 2017, AIA’s Disaster Assistance Handbook is a resource for municipal government and public health officials interested in working with architects.

AIA’s Disaster Assistance Program, in conjunction with the California Office of Emergency Services, trains architects and other licensed design professionals to perform Building Safety Assessments as volunteers. These trained professionals are dispatched as volunteer Building Evaluators at the request of state and local governments during a declared disaster.

Building Safety Assessments mitigate future health dangers, such as falling hazards, exposure to mold and overcrowding of emergency shelters. Therefore, evaluating a city’s building stock pre-disaster enables leaders to take steps toward resilient retrofits, which prevent damage that makes buildings uninhabitable.

Building Safety Assessments mitigate future health dangers, such as falling hazards, exposure to mold and overcrowding of emergency shelters.

Before disaster strikes, public health, building and emergency management officials can establish partnerships with the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects to coordinate volunteer resources. Knowing your community resources, establishing cross-sector relationships and especially understanding consequences of hazardous events are key preparedness strategies to increase the capacity to respond to a disaster.

It is important to remember that disasters can happen anytime and come in many forms. Just ask survivors of Superstorm Sandy and Hurricanes Katrina, Harvey and Irma. Response and recovery are not options. So let’s plan ahead and work together to protect our communities.