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Alex Wilson plans for the worst

Executive editor of Envrironmental Building News talks to The Coast about modern architecture and global warming.



"Hurricanes, floods, ice storms, fuelshortages, blackouts, terrorism." Alex Wilson gives me a list of things modern architects needs to concern themselves with.

Wilson is a green building editor and executive editor of Environmental Building News. Jennifer Corson and Keith Robertson of Solterre Design, a local green architectural firm, have invited me to meet with Wilson while he's in town.

"Our buildings are vulnerable," he adds, by way of explanation. That vulnerability springs from climate change, which among other things increases the frequency and severity of major weather events. Events like the east coast ice storm of 1998, Hurricane Juan in 2003 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

It is impossible to know if those events would have been as severe without all of our greenhouse gas emissions. What we do know is that in the future, we can count on more of the same. Much more.

According to Wilson, it is the responsibility of architects and designers to prepare for the worst. It's not just a matter of using more renewable energy and improving energy efficiency. "We need to maintain livable conditions even with a complete loss of power," he says, because if things are as bad as scientists say, power outages we experienced during Hurricane Juan are just a warm-up for life after peak oil.

Wilson's status as an expert on architectural disaster preparedness was unplanned, though he's been in the business of building green for more than 25 years. When he attended the United States Green Building Council's national conference in November 2005, and the focus was on reconstructing New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Wilson was moved by images of life and death.

"I saw people in the SuperDome, where it was so dangerously hot," he explains. "Modern buildings are designed so that they can't function without air conditioning."

For starters, Wilson offered to write up the findings of the conference. From his work emerged The New Orleans Principles for reconstruction work on the Gulf Coast. Those principles are both revolutionary and retro.

Preparing for the worst doesn't require any significant technological breakthroughs, just an intellectual one. "We know how to do all this stuff," Wilson argues. "It's just a matter of using triple glazed windows, effective shading from green foliage, natural ventilation and passive solar lighting." In other words, making use of natural environmental features rather than fighting them.

The French Quarter of New Orleans, Wilson tells me, was built before the days of the carbon economy. The ornate, vernacular design of buildings there is in accord with the local environment. They make use of shaded decks and are well ventilated, cooled by the breezes of Lake Pontchartrain andthe Mississipi.

"It's not as comfortable as AC, but it's livable," Wilson says. "There will be no heat deaths there." In Halifax's climate, passive survivability would have to focus on weather extremes at both ends of the mercury.

Jennifer Corson adds that there are several old buildings in HRM that fit the bill. "The Halifax Forum has lots of window openings," she says, meaning it can be ventilated in summer, unlike modern steel and glass skyrises. It can get cold in winter but it retains enough heat to be liveable in an emergency, especially when filled with warm bodies.

"We should be trying to salvage old buildings," Corson says, something architects would cringe at. "Instead, we demolish them."

That reminds Wilson about schools and the need to design them so they can operate in an emergency without electricity or access to city water. "That's where people can evacuate," he says. "They should be designed with a self-contained water and heat system."

The problem, Keith Robertson says, is that the public's memory is short. Although he and Jennifer remember walking up 11 flights of stairs to their office during the blacked out aftermath of Juan, he says little has changed in the urban design community's approach since the lights came back on. "The response has only focused on emergency response systems," he says.

"That's why you need to mandate passive survivability," Wilson offers, saying that a staggering amount of resources could be saved. "The insurance industry spends hundreds of millions on disaster payouts." Imagine the opportunities inherent in having a multi-billion dollar industry onside for improving environmental and safety standards for all new buildings.

"While we're at it we could preserve the old ones and make the heritage folks happy too. You know, back in the day, they built things green not out of fear, not because it was regulated and not because it was trendy. Wasting energy to build something useless in a storm wasn't an option back then."

"We were buying an old house on the south shore," Jennifer tells me, as ifreading my mind. "We went down like good green architects to see if any retrofitting could be done for energy efficiency. Turns out the house is aligned south facing, perfectly designed for natural lighting by the sun. Back then they knew how to design with nature."

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