This Earth Day, Let’s #RemodelforResilience

Earth Day has become synonymous with spring. Spring flowers, spring cleaning, spring faith traditions like Passover and Easter, and now Earth Day – a celebration of the human endeavor to ensure that spring will continue to bring hope and joy and sunlight to our children and their children down to the seventh generation.

As we enter the second spring under the cloud of the COVID pandemic, Earth Day offers an opportunity to pause and reflect on how to “build back better” in preparation – or prevent altogether – for the next quarantine.

Infectious disease pandemics are not new, or particularly rare. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security lists “Human Pandemic Outbreak” just before “Hurricane” on the list of natural hazards. And, if climate scientists are right, we should brace ourselves for the prospect that the COVID stay-at-home experience will not be our last extended stay in our homes.

Social media hashtags like #ProjectQuarantine and #QuarantineRemodel indicate that many Americans have taken advantage of the extra time on their hands over the past year to remodel. According to a survey by home renovation portal Porch, up to 75% of Americans are investing time and money during the pandemic to improve their living conditions. But is it all for aesthetics, or for health and safety? Given our current reality and our likely future as intermittent stay-at-homers, I would like to propose a new framing for this COVID-19 quarantine trend: #RemodelforResilience. What would it look like if we were to update our homes so that they are more livable during the next natural disaster? What if we centered health in design? There is potential for homeowners, renters, landlords, and apartment buildings.

There is no single checklist or rule of thumb for resilient design. A resilient building must, by definition, respond to its unique climate, its unique environmental and social circumstances. However, we can look to successful examples for pointers on how to #RemodelforResilience.

In hurricane and flood-prone regions, #RemodelforResilience might focus on protecting families from flood-related injuries by building outside of the floodplain and planting vegetation to absorb flood waters on site. Buildings subject to repeat flooding events may benefit from installing impervious flooring and wall finishes. For example, buildings in Buffalo Bayou park, which doubles in Houston, Texas, as a Central Park and flood control mechanism, emerged from 39-foot deep flood waters caused by Hurricane Harvey with little damage other than silt that could be hosed off.

RemodelforResilience in western states, on the other hand, might focus more on protecting families from heat waves and wildfires during the summer and snowstorms in the winter. Desert Rain, a Living Building Certified residential complex in Bend, Oregon, is designed to withstand power and water disruptions. Energy and water demand are minimized through insulation, triple paned windows, and ultra-efficient water fixtures. An on-site solar/battery system and a rainwater capture, storage, and filtration system accommodate 100% of the remaining demand. And, a dual ventilation system – mechanically filtered and operable windows – allows the family to filter out particulate matter if regional wildfires threaten to compromise indoor air quality.

By Earth Day, every adult living in the U.S. will likely have access to the COVID-19 vaccine. As we begin to clear out our homes in anticipation of returning to a more normal life, let’s use this opportunity to #RemodelforResilience, so that the next time we shelter-in-place the experience is safer, healthier, and more joyful for ourselves and our families.

Adele Houghton, AIA, MPH, LEED AP BD+C, O+M, ND, is president of Biositu, LLC and a Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) student at Harvard University where she is a C-CHANGE Ambassador. Houghton helps building professionals and local governments identify opportunities to use green and healthy buildings as a catalyst for accelerating local climate action and chronic disease reduction.

Harvard T.H. Chan’s School of Public Health’s Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment (C-CHANGE) is a partner of Climate for Health, a coalition of health leaders committed to caring for our climate to care for our health.  Founded by ecoAmerica, Climate for Health offers tools, resources, and communications to demonstrate visible climate leadership, inspiring and empowering health leaders to speak about, act on and advocate for climate solutions. Learn more about our partnership and the resources available to you here.

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