BUILDING RESILIENCY: Learning from COVID… and Everything Else

I’m going out on a limb and assuming that those who are reading this are sick and tired of COVID. Chances are you’ve been sick and tired of it for almost a year now. Many people are probably asking themselves the same question morning, noon, and night: “When are we going back to normal?”

Well, what was “normal” anyway? And are we sure we want to go back there? After all, wasn’t it the “normal” way we lived that set the table for the hardships we are currently enduring? First, our global hyper-connectedness left us helpless to the spread of COVID-19. Then our just-in-time supply chains left our job sites without materials and our grocery stores without food. Finally, and perhaps worst of all, our upwardly mobile culture left us isolated, hours away from family and friends when we needed them the most. Did you like spending the holidays without your loved ones? I sure didn’t.

Empty city roads became common place due to COVID shutdowns.
 Photo source: Vlad Tchompalov

We in the AEC industry have done a tremendous job of bouncing back and adapting to the pressures of COVID, and this shouldn’t be a surprise given that dealing with the unexpected is basically an average Tuesday in our business. We should indeed be proud of how we’ve adjusted to a “new normal” at work, but how well have we been able to adapt outside work—at home and in our community—and how long will we be able to sustain that?

So let’s take our licks from COVID and craft a new and improved “normal.” We should start by talking about how we can learn from COVID to build a better “normal” as humans. Let’s think about how we can better prepare for the next pandemic… or extreme weather event… or economic downturn… or political unrest… because whether we want to admit it or not, these things are sure to come our way. Let’s “Build Back Better,” to use the current popular slogan, by first considering how changes in the built environment can boost community resilience.

Resilience is the ability of a thing to withstand negative forces imposed on it. In general, things that are complicated, centralized, and monolithic tend to be fragile (i.e. not resilient), whereas things that are simple, distributed, and adaptive/diverse tend to be resilient (or perhaps even Antifragile, to use the term made popular by Nassim Nicholas Taleb).


Our old, “normal” way of life was not very resilient, thanks to its dependence on good health, cheap energy, stable climate, intricate just-in-time supply chains, commuter culture, abundant food supply, and high employment. Remove one block from that foundation and a cascade effect in the community is inevitable, as we have painfully discovered.

The end result of a lack of natural resilience
Image source: Twitter user @wrathofgnon 

So what do resilient buildings and communities look like?


First, we should talk about what they probably don’t look like. Using the attributes in the definition above, examples of fragility might be evidenced by a “yes” answer to the following questions:

Is it complicated?

  • Does my building require an advanced degree or specialized training to provide me with adequate fresh air, light or heat/cooling?
  • Does my community rely on far-off places and intricate infrastructure & supply chains to meet my basic needs?

Is it centralized?

  • Does my building require the use of an elevator to be able to practically navigate to all floors? Is my building 100% reliant on the utility grid?
  • Does my community require the use of a car to be able to practically navigate to work, stores, schools, hospitals, etc.?

Is it monolithic?

  • Would my building require major renovations to give it more than one practical use (i.e. is it a high-rise residential or office building)?
  • Is my community zoned as residential-only (i.e. a “bedroom community” or sprawling subdivision)? Is it comprised of members with uniform skillsets (i.e. an exclusively white-collar or blue-collar community)?

Like me, I’m sure you unfortunately had to respond to a lot of those questions with a “yes.” Our built environment is fragile, and it’s sobering to admit. Though you may only be forced to acknowledge its existence now, chances are you’ve felt for some time the effects that fragility has on us. It feels like anxiety and depression; like isolation and disconnection; like frustration and division. All of these things are on the rise in America today. I would argue that we are experiencing an influx of these feelings because the fragility of our built environment is inhuman. After all, humans as a whole are very resilient, and we have a gut instinct for looming risks.

But don’t take my word for it. In his TED Talk on “How Bad Architecture Wrecked Cities”, social and architectural critic James Howard Kunstler pointed out that “the immersive ugliness of our everyday environments in America is entropy made visible…The public realm is the physical manifestation of the common good. And when you degrade the public realm, you will automatically degrade the quality of your civic life.” In other words, put bluntly, if our built environment is a hot mess then we are likely to be a hot mess as well. The full TED Talk is well worth the watch if you can handle a little gut-punching criticism and some risqué jokes. If nothing else, skip to 06:13 for some zingers about our beloved Boston City Hall Plaza.

“Hey Siri, show me a picture of a fragile neighborhood.”
Image source: Pintrest user Joshua Shepherd

Ok, enough pessimism! Let’s talk about building our way out of this.Revisiting the attributes of resilience above, let us start by again asking ourselves some questions:

Is it simple?

  • Can my building be maintained using readily available, local materials, and labor? Does my building have low-tech options for ventilation (operable windows), lighting and heating (passive solar)?
  • Is my community accessible on-foot or by bicycle? Can I meet my basic needs through my community via local/short supply chains?

Is it distributed?

  • Is my building easily navigable via stairs, and are there multiple points of entry/egress? Does my building have redundant energy systems?
  • Does my community have more than one hub for working, socializing, shopping, etc.? 

Is it adaptive/diverse?

  • Can my building be easily modified to accommodate a new or additional use?
  • Does a large portion of my community live AND work locally (not just one, or the other)? Do my community’s zoning laws allow for mixed-use development?

If you are lucky enough to have answered “yes” to some of those questions then congratulations, you are benefiting from resiliency in your built environment! However, if all you had were “no” responses, don’t sweat — you have options, but they do all require some work, and there is a sense of urgency. To adapt the popular Chinese proverb: The best time to build resiliency was 20 years ago, the second-best time is now. So let’s look at a few options that you can consider to build resilience in your home and various communities.

Three options for building resilience

Option 1: Increase resiliency where you are.

At home, add a rain barrel, a wood stove, some solar panels, a generator, a chest freezer, etc. Start a garden or plant some fruit trees. Buy an e-bike and ride it in place of using a car for short trips. Eat healthy and get lots of exercise. Embrace work-from-home if possible so commuting isn’t a burden. 

In the neighborhood, start by actually meeting and forming relationships with your neighbors! Build social capital. Offer your unique skills and find out what kind of useful skills your neighbors have. Pool funds for a tool-share, or coordinate investments to ensure that at least one person in the neighborhood has a generator, a chainsaw (and PPE!), a snowblower, a sump pump, a chest freezer, etc. Practice micro-neighborliness

Get to know your local town or city government, especially the planning and/or zoning board members (or run for office yourself!). Hold their feet to the fire to ensure that new projects increase resiliency, not decrease it, and make sure they are fiscally responsible! Participate in a community garden. Join a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and get to know your local farmers. Seek out ways to practice tactical urbanism

At work, help to create redundant systems and processes, as well as an emergency action plan. Make sure employees have the proper equipment to work-from-home. (We are pros at that now, right?) Most importantly, for the developers and designers reading this, make sure your next project has resilient features not only for the sake of the project itself but also for the community it is built in. 

High schoolers building skillsets and supporting community agriculture (pre-COVID) at Land’s Sake Farm in Weston, MA
Image source: Instagram user @landssake

Option 2: Scratch-built resiliency.

You can consider building yourself a new resilient home. Maybe you’re inspired to head to the mountains and build your own off-grid homestead. You don’t need to do that to live resiliently (though I can think of worse ideas). But if that is something you are really into, I highly suggest you pick up Ben Falk’s book “The Resilient Farm & Homestead” for some inspiration. It isn’t necessary to build your resilient homestead all at once, and in some ways that is considered NOT to be a resilient approach. Check out Thomas Hubka’s book “Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn” for some lessons on incremental building. It is also not necessary to build your resilient home in a remote area. These lessons can apply to a new suburban home, not just a rural homestead. 

New resilient communities are a great option if you want to live a more connected and neighborly life (who really wants to live isolated through potentially hard times anyways?). There have been some great minds hard at work rolling out new resilient real estate development projects and approaches for you to explore. The pioneers in this effort have been the “New Urbanists,” specifically the Congress for the New Urbanism, whose website has a tremendous amount of resources to explore. New Urbanists and resilience-oriented developers are designing new projects that prioritize walkable mixed-use (live+work) layouts, access to locally sourced food, and simple environmentally friendly utilities like rainwater storage, passive solar… and even humanure processing in some cases. 

Some examples of completed/ongoing resilient development projects range from scratch-built small towns (coined as “Agri-hoods”) like Serenbe outside Atlanta, Georgia, to small farm-centric co-housing neighborhoods like Nubanusit Neighborhood & Farm in nearby Peterborough, NH. There are also blue-sky, high-tech projects in the works like ReGen Villages that offer a lot of hope and inspiration for more new resilient communities to come. 

The Borough in Carlton Landing, OK is a micro village of sustainable masonry homes built by @1000yearhouse and well worth a follow on IG. Clay Chapman does some amazing work.

Option 3: Revitalize and restore resiliency. 

The downside to scratch-built resilient homes and communities is that they tend to be expensive and therefore are a luxury that most can’t afford. They also aren’t the most environmentally friendly endeavors because they rely on greenfield sites and new materials. If you want to make a move, but dont have deep pockets, there is another option, and its my favorite. 

There are these things you might have heard of called rural small towns. Maybe you’re even originally from one. You know, those places that for the past 50 years people have moved away from in search of the best possible education, work opportunity, or lifestyle. You can’t blame those who have left, but the end result is a concentration and centralization of talent and capital in urban and suburban areas. (Remember, centralized and monolithic things tend to be fragile.) The good news is that many of these hollowed-out towns were born in a time that required resilience, thus they still have “good bones” from a resiliency perspective, such as:

  • Pre-WWII business districts that are dense, walkable and integrated into surrounding residential neighborhoods.
  • Access to nearby farms and farmland, as well as other natural resources like timber lots, gravel pits, quarries, etc. 
  • Adjacent to water sources for hydro-electric use or harbor access.
  • Strong networks of social capital and a culture of neighborliness and thriftiness.

These places are dying—literally and figuratively—for a resurgence of equity in the form of talent, enthusiasm, and capital. All it would take is a handful of young people/families, some elbow grease, and some cash (which goes a lot farther in places like these than it does in the city) to rebuild them into beautiful, human-scaled, resilient towns again. The timing is great for this option—if there is a blessing that comes with COVID, it is the normalization of work-from-home that frees-up the talent and capital to make this kind of strategic move. With that said, it is an opportunity that needs to be approached with humility and care. The object is not to gentrify, rather it is to regenerate the potential for well-distributed prosperity.

There are towns that have already gone through or are in the midst of such a transformation that we can look toward for inspiration. Some of my local favorites are Brattleboro, VT, Peterborough, NH and Greenfield, MA. I assume that most people reading this are New Englanders, so go for a drive this weekend and check them out. Take the back roads. I promise that you’ll find it motivating!

Vibrant downtown Brattleboro, VT. A town of mostly tumbleweeds ~20 years ago.
Image source: www.berkleyveller.com, taken by Adam Palmiter

But first, educate yourself.

I am far from the authority on this topic. I do not have a background in real estate development, urban planning, civics, or sociology. I am just a guy who is interested in the subject and would like to see a future world that is resilient as opposed to, you know, the alternative. But if this stuff tickles your fancy and you want to learn more, boy do I have some recommendations for you. See below for books to read, podcasts to listen to, and people to follow. If you are hungry for more or want to chat about the subject then I’d love for you to email me so that we can continue the conversation!

Mass Construction Note: If you’d like to hear more from Greg have a listen to our episode of the Mass Construction Show.

BOOKS:

PODCASTS:

TWITTER:

INSTAGRAM:

YOUTUBE:

DISCLAIMER: Unfortunately, I feel the need to point out that some people can be provocative and controversial, especially on the internet, and sometimes they even have views that go against the mainstream status quo. This is all perfectly legal… for now at least… and we are all adults, right? The references I’ve included in this post are provided because I think they are of interest to the topic, not because I endorse all the content therein. 

4 thoughts

  1. Loved this article Joe! Add “Happy City” to the list of books! It’s why I chose our house! We can walk most places, the house is south facing, land for gardening, the list goes on!

    1. Hi Krysta – Glad you liked the article! I have not read Happy City but it is now on my list. Thanks for the recommendation!

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