Today’s recommended reading comes from the Chronicle of Higher Education, which has a suite of articles on the idea of ‘resilience,’ or a measure of a system’s ability to maintain its “operational integrity.”  The term first surfaced in 1973 to describe ecological performance–how well a species or population could survive given changes in their environment–but ‘resilience’ has found its way into social sciences as both a metaphor and as a model for population studies.  The results have been predictably messy and, as the articles note, somewhat controversial, but also interesting.

Anyone who has been stuck at O’Hare for 24 hours because of a weather system on the east coast knows the idea of resilience first-hand.  Airlines that have to cancel hundreds of flights because of a storm hundreds of miles away are, um, not resilient.  They may be lean, they may be efficient on good days, but if a predictable event throws the system into chaos, that’s a classic example of a non-resilient system.  (And yes, I’ve had hours and hours in Terminal 1 to sit and ponder this).

There’s an interesting hint here for environmental design and preservation, too.  If we changed our terminology, as the article seems to suggest, from “sustainable” to “resilient,” we’d be a bit more honest about what we really expected our buildings to do.  And it would put the focus more on improving what’s already there instead of on the latest gadgets.  If we build a ‘sustainable’ building, the rhetoric is that we can continue to build, exactly like that, for as long as we want, and in the back of our minds I think we all know that ain’t the case.  If, on the other hand, we build a “resilient” building, it’s one that will still be habitable through climate changes, floods, energy costing more, etc.  That seems a better goal ethically.  And it also implies thinking about how we retrofit existing buildings to make them more adaptable to change–foreseeable and otherwise.  For example, complex building management systems work fantastically well–when they work.  Passive daylighting and cooling, on the other hand, work pretty well no matter whether the power’s on, the internet is up and running, etc.  Embedded in this terminology is a pretty nifty rebuttal to the additive nature of a lot of ‘sustainable’ design today, and a suggestion that simple solutions that are easy to fix and to manipulate will always trump complicated systems that require several things to be going well in order to perform.

Worth a read…

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