Cleantech Market Intelligence
Resilience: Coming Soon to a Building Near You
Resilience – defined as “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change” – has long been a primary goal of the smart grid. However, outside of data centers, which have always been optimized for physical and network resilience, this attribute rarely makes the priority list for commercial building design and operations. A recent report by Sandia National Labs explores the drivers and obstacles for the development of resilient buildings.
One of the report’s key findings is the lack of a consensus definition of a “resilient building,” which is not surprising. If a building is in an earthquake zone, a resilient building is one that doesn’t collapse during a major earthquake. In addition to structural integrity, resiliency of fire and other life safety systems are also of key importance – and well understood. But for this discussion, a resilient building is one that is designed, constructed, and operated to allow ongoing operation in the face of significant external disruptions, such as natural disasters, external system failures (i.e., power grid outages, transportation systems shutdowns, etc.), or similar threats.
Although the Sandia report was drafted before Tropical Cyclone Sandy devastated the U.S. East Coast, Sandy’s impact, especially in New York City, has focused some minds on the concept of resilient buildings. Building designs that integrate backup power sources, tolerate flooding up to a certain level, and support other forms of infrastructure redundancy should have obvious appeal to occupiers, owners, insurers, and other stakeholders. However, the Sandia researchers found that, as with other optional building improvements such as energy efficiency upgrades, the motivation for implementing resiliency techniques depends on demonstrably clear economic advantages. It always comes down to the business case.
Efficiency = Resiliency
One aspect the Sandia report does not address, however, is how many emerging smart building technologies, with business cases justified by operation and/or energy savings (or regulations), might contribute resilience in commercial buildings. Energy storage technologies, studied in the recent Navigant Research report Energy Storage in Commercial Buildings are likely key to building resilience, especially when combined with in-building microgrid technologies (discussed in another recent report, Direct Current Distribution Networks). It stands to reason that a more efficient building, including basic envelope efficiency, HVAC and lighting systems, and potentially integrating generation sources such as solar or combined heat and power, has the potential to be more resilient in the face of external disasters.
Will resilience be a major focus for smart commercial building construction and retrofit? Given how much time and regulatory pressure it has taken for energy efficiency to be taken seriously, I would not hold my breath, but including resiliency benefits in the business case for other smart technologies could be a savvy move.