Can Green Buildings Help Us Survive The Next ‘Doomsday’?

If you can read this, you’ve probably already survived the much-reported, thoroughly ridiculous Mayan Apocalypse prophecy as today marks the end of the “long count” calendar created by the ancient civilization. Real disasters, of course, are no joke, as we saw from the losses of $65 billion (and counting) from Superstorm Sandy this fall and $108 billion from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Coastal cities worldwide are scrambling to prepare for many more “Storms of the Century” to come.

Some designers have responded with a bunker mentality, building homes that are partially underground, as was documented masterfully by TreeHugger. Others went the survivalist route, such as the Midwest-based Vivos, offering shelters that are a throwback to the atomic days of “Dr. Strangelove.”  Recent studies, however, suggest that many passive green building strategies—in addition to reducing energy costs and slowing the drain on natural resources—can also soften the impact of natural disasters and make life more healthy and bearable for survivors during the recovery period.

A house in Union Beach, N.J., cut in half by Hurricane Sandy. Image via spleeness/Flickr.

A house in Union Beach, N.J., cut in half by Hurricane Sandy. Image via spleeness/Flickr.

Science writer and reproductive biologist David Bainbridge wrote recently on the Triple Pundit website about how green building is “one of the best antidotes to climate change.” Buildings, he points out, generate 40 percent of the global warming gases emitted in the United States and use 70 percent of the nation’s electricity. “If we do things right,” he writes, “we can cut energy use 90 percent in new buildings and 70 percent in retrofits while improving comfort and health.”

Artist's rendering of a planned underground community shelter, via The Vivos Group.

Artist’s rendering of a planned underground community shelter, via The Vivos Group.

As he describes in his book, Passive Solar Architecture (Chelsea Green, 2011), passive systems are inherently flexible compared to conventional buildings because their form, materials orientation and thermal mass are designed to be as independent as possible from electricity, oil, gas, firewood or coal. These buildings, which often have their own PV panels and rainwater harvesting cisterns, are therefore “less brittle” when faced with storms, earthquakes, terror attacks or wildfires that can render a city helpless. Bainbridge continues:

“This is in great contrast with so many of today’s buildings that are unusable without their umbilical connection to the grid. These buildings are like people on an iron lung. Many don’t even allow natural ventilation because they have sealed windows. They are addicted to electrically powered heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.”

Scientists say that as the climate slowly warms and melts the polar ice caps, storms even stronger than Hurricane Sandy will become more common and the shorelines of the city’s boroughs will be subject to more frequent and severe inundation. After the flood waters from Sandy slowly subsided, the New York/New Jersey region became the symbol of the expected rise in sea levels over the next century.

Randy Woods is a Seattle-based writer and editor with 20+ years of experience in the business publishing world. A former managing editor of Seattle Business, iSixSigma, Claims and Waste Age magazines, he has covered topics that include newspaper publishing, entrepreneurism, green businesses, insurance, environmental protection and garbage hauling (yes, really). He also contributes to the Career Center Blog for The Seattle Times and edits a photography magazine called PhotoMedia. When not working, he likes to hide out in Seattle movie theaters and attend film festivals—even on sunny days.