Can Resilient Buildings Protect Against Future Shock?

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As architects and homeowners increasingly consider how their dwellings can bounce back after a natural or man-made disruption, propane offers an intriguing energy option for an unpredictable future.

By Selby Frame
Staff Writer

As more communities grapple with devastating natural disasters and brace against real and anticipated threats of human origin — such as terrorism and cyber attacks — architects, community leaders, social innovators, researchers, and an array of public and private organizations are starting to design for a future of uncertainties.

In some forums, sustainability as a buzzword is being replaced by discussion of a new social paradigm: resilience. Author Andrew Zolli defined the term in a recent op-ed in The New York Times: “A new dialogue is emerging around a new idea, resilience: how to help vulnerable people, organizations and systems persist, perhaps even thrive, amid unforeseeable disruptions. Where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world.”

Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 11.55.26 AMResilience is gaining particular traction among architects, builders, and urban planners as they try to develop benchmarks and strategies for construction of efficient, durable homes that can help protect people from weather events and extended losses of power or fuel.

Among the leading advocates of resilience is Alex Wilson, a longtime spokesperson for environmentally friendly design and founder of BuildingGreen. “Most of our focus on how homes perform in the event of natural disasters is focused on surviving the storm itself,” Wilson says. “I believe that this conversation must be extended to the aftermath of the event. With climate change occurring, we will see increased demand for creating more resilient buildings — and communities that are less dependent on autos.”

Standby generators can help homeowners bounce back quickly from a power outage, but contractors in residential energy efficiency are also starting to incorporate propane as part of whole-house resilience strategies.

Wilson recently founded the Resilient Design Institute, a think tank that he hopes will catalyze public discussion around resilience. Many strategies for designing resilient communities mirror those being promoted in the green building movement, he observes. Where resilience differs, he says, is its primary emphasis on homeowner safety, achieved through redundant systems, increased energy independence, and use of renewable local resources.

“Many things can be done to make buildings more resilient that don’t have big price tags attached to them,” Wilson says. “There is a cost of beefing up insulation levels and installing good windows. But once you improve the envelope of your home, you realize savings. Also, I think propane is a good option for backup generators and offers the prospect of resilience even if natural gas lines get cut off.”

Bringing resilience into the mainstream

Recognized industry standards for resilient building have yet to be established, but builders and homeowners are already starting to incorporate some resilient solutions. Construction of zero-energy and even energy-plus homes are on the rise, and the techniques of building low-load homes are becoming more mainstream.

Propane offers a range of resilient solutions for homes across the residential market. In the event of a power outage, for instance, standby propane generators can support backup power, heating, or both. Energy-efficient propane generator sets can be easily combined with solar, wind, or other renewable energy resources to create durable, independent hybrid energy systems for residential and commercial off-grid applications.

Contractors in residential energy efficiency are starting to incorporate propane as part of whole-house resilience strategies that go beyond simple installation of backup generators, according to Peter Troast, founder and CEO of Energy Circle, a software company catering to energy efficiency contractors.

“I think we have some education to do to get people to think beyond generators, to think more holistically about their house,” Troast says. “What are energy sources? Do your resident fuel sources function in periods of outages? How does the house maintain heat over time? What about insulation and air sealing?

“It won’t surprise me to find that sales are better with homes that meet certain resilience standards.”

“I think that propane has a really significant advantage to the extent that it is functional separate to the electrical system,” he says. “In the case of my oil boiler, although there is a tank sitting next to it, it doesn’t function without electricity. In contrast, my propane stove works just fine. Thinking about some of the interconnectedness of these systems and installing them with the intent to function separately [is] another positive for propane as a fuel.”

Propane offers whole-house resilience

Because it can be safely stored on-site in tanks of varying sizes, builders can now use propane to supply energy to most primary systems and appliances, including furnaces and space heaters, tankless water heaters, dryers, fireplaces, and kitchen ranges. Propane systems and appliances are typically far more efficient than their electric counterparts and in many cases emit fewer than half of the greenhouse gas emissions of electric models.

“Safety is a big motivator,” Wilson says. “But [resilience] has ancillary benefits, so it’s worth doing anyway. You spend less money on energy, can be more flexible, and you create more walkable, friendly communities — all things that people really like that benefit them.”

As discussion of establishing codes and standards for resilience filters through official channels, other benefits are sure to follow, Wilson says. “It won’t surprise me to find?that sales are better with homes that meet certain resilience standards or that we can begin to use that as a marketing tool,” he says. “And the insurance industry should be very interested in resilience. There is potential down the road to get insurance companies to offer preferential rates for buildings that meet certain resilience standards.”

Troast also is hopeful about the adoption of more resilient building standards as the market for passive homes continues to grow. “Resilience has some real cache amongst thoughtful, progressive architects and builders and at the government level,” he says. “All these things are pulling in the right direction.”

To learn more about whole-house design, check out these Propane Energy Update articles: