Unveiling RELi 2.0: piloting a new standard for sustainability, resilience

Unveiling RELi 2.0: piloting a new standard for sustainability, resilience

Spring 2019 | Written by Katharine Logan

Since the mid-20th century, the frequency of natural disasters globally has risen sharply, from 40 in 1960 to more than 400 in 2000. In 2017, although the number of disasters dropped below 300 for the first time this century, their cost ($350 billion) hit a new high. In January 2019, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) launched the RELi 2.0 Rating System, a resilience-focused design paradigm that helps projects of all scales prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from, and more successfully adapt to adverse events.

“As we face the very real challenges posed by climate change, sea level rise, riverine flooding, and wildfire, we’ve got to have both resilience and sustainability baked into the way we design and build,” says Susan Dorn, general counsel at USGBC and a member of the RELi (pronounced “rely”) steering committee. “It’s not enough to be green; we’ve got to be both.”

While high-caliber work in resilience policy and benchmarking is plentiful—especially at the urban scale—there has been until now a dearth of tools that bundle together the elements of resilience into actionable and measurable steps. “It’s something that we are finding our clients, whether in corporate America or in the governmental sector, are very interested in,” says Katherine Hammack, executive director of Ernst & Young’s government and public sector, and also a RELi steering committee member. Developed according to an American National Standards Institute (ANSI) process, RELi offers what Hammack calls “a cookbook for resilience,” so that building owners can specify a desired level of performance without needing to know the nitty gritty it entails.

The Bell Museum of Natural History, in St. Paul, Minnesota, by Perkins+Will, has features aimed at preserving biodiversity, including bird-safe glass incorporating a subtle horizontal frit (left), and a pond that fosters wildlife habitat. © 2018 James Steinkamp Photography

Survivability and beyond

Fundamental to the standard is its breadth of concern. “Most people think of resilience as hardening in resistance to extreme events, with efforts mainly focused on infrastructure and buildings,” says Doug Pierce, a senior associate at Perkins+Will. Pierce acted as principal investigator in the development of the standard, and chairs the RELi steering committee. “But resilience requires a more holistic approach,” he says. Similar in structure to USGBC’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, RELi is based on a system of points and prerequisites organized according to eight categories. These include Panoramic Approach (which covers pre-planning, discovery, and systems thinking); Hazard Preparedness; Hazard Mitigation + Adaptation; Community Cohesion/Social + Economic Vitality; Productivity, Health + Diversity; Energy, Water + On-site Food Production; Materials + Artifacts; and Applied Creativity (which recognizes innovation).

In addition to its ground breaking, resilience-specific measures, RELi incorporates relevant strategies from other standards. About 20 percent of its substance overlaps with LEED, for example. This is meant to reinforce the importance of such priorities as resource conservation and carbon mitigation without reinventing them, and this makes certification in both rating systems more achievable and streamlined.

It may come as a surprise that RELi’s largest single category pertains to social cohesion and vitality, and yet, says Pierce, people who know each other’s names and skills are more likely to be able to work together in a crisis, and to continue to work together to recover afterwards—whether that takes days or years. So, as well as fostering high-encounter environments like mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods with co-located amenities, RELi rewards the provision of space for connection-building initiatives such as car- or tool-sharing programs, a community radio station or newsletter, community gardens or kitchens, and public meetings.

The standard also includes a credit for fostering a co-operative enterprise. Ownership gives a co-operative’s workers more stake in the organizations’ success, making cooperatives and nonprofits inherently more resilient—and more democratic—than conventional for-profit organizations, explains Pierce. As an example, he points to a community-based green infrastructure initiative in Chicago, which employs local people to develop and maintain the infrastructure that prevents sewage backup in their basements while also providing green space in their neighborhood. “Even something as basic as stormwater management can act as a force for social cohesion,” Pierce says.

Combined sewer capacity isn’t the only resilience-limiting factor that kicks in at a neighborhood scale. Other examples include power grid stability, potable water supply, and solid waste removal. Because projects that improve building-level resilience soon bump up against these factors, scale-jumping is another key aspect of RELi. The rating system bundles multiple scales together to encourage projects to pursue resilience across levels whenever possible. And while RELi is certainly intended to help building-scale projects, developments at a campus scale—whether corporate, healthcare, university, military, or hospitality—will find they have more scope for improvement. Conversely, says Hammack, they also have greater potential for liability and loss should they fail to make resilient choices. She notes that USGBC engaged with insurers and bond rating agencies to explore preferable consideration for projects that demonstrate improved resilience under RELi.

Perkins+Will’s schemes for a pair of hospitals, one in Corpus Christi, Texas (left page), and another in Oklahoma City (top), respond to threats specific to their locations, including hurricanes and tornadoes.

Piloting a new paradigm

While RELi is being piloted, it will be open to LEED-registered or -certified projects, with introductory pricing and lots of support, says Dorn. Projects already trialing the new standard include a pair of Perkins+Will-designed healthcare towers: one at CHRISTUS Spohn Shoreline Hospital, in Corpus Christi, Texas, and the other at the University of Oklahoma Medical Center (OUMC), in Oklahoma City.

Both facilities incorporate measures such as five-day emergency generator capacity, a minimum of four days’ food and water storage, redundancy in the central plant, an emergency plan, and facilities for community outreach and engagement. In response to hazards specific to each project’s circumstances, CHRISTUS Spohn is built above the 500-year floodplain with hurricane-resistant structure and cladding, and is equipped with oversized roof drains. Based on a hazard assessment that extends beyond extreme weather events, the hospital also includes facilities for mass decontamination in the event of an oil-rig accident or other industrial incident. And in case of civil unrest, patients and families of differing factions can be accommodated in separate waiting rooms.

OUMC identified tornado risk as one of its most significant hazards, and the design of its envelope takes that into account, with a fiberglass reinforcing mesh beneath terra cotta cladding, impact-resistant glazing, and a green roof that adds wind-driven projectile protection to its better known advantages. Seismic risks are addressed with moment and braced frames in the building’s foundation and steel frame. For winter snow-dumps, elevated access is provided to surrounding infrastructure, and radiant heating systems under exterior walkways and driveways improve safety. “RELi isn’t technically difficult,” says Julie Frazier, who contributed to both projects as a senior medical planner at Perkins+Will, “but the paradigm shift can be a challenge.”

In the five years since work on the standard began, climate change has picked up its pace, and scientists’ understanding of the nascent Anthropocene era has evolved. Biodiversity loss, for example, has emerged as a threat to civilization on par with climate change, according to a UN-backed report released in 2018. To reflect the developments in science, an update to RELi is underway. In the meantime, steering committee members hope that the current version will catalyze some exemplary projects capable of seeding widespread adoption, and help to grow a safer, more resilient society. “The mission for USGBC is ‘green buildings for everyone within a generation,’” says Dorn. With the introduction of RELi, she says, “Let’s make that ‘green and resilient.’”

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