RELi, pronounced “rely,” is a national consensus standard rating system, similar to LEED, that focuses on resiliency. Developed by a committee of architects and engineers, it was published in December 2014 after four months of public review and commentary. The new CHRISTUS Spohn Health System campus project in Corpus Christi, which weathered Hurricane Harvey as a construction site, is being designed to RELi standards. Texas Architect Editor Aaron Seward recently spoke with Perkins+Will’s Doug Pierce, AIA, the principal investigator on the RELi development committee, about what the standard contains and some of the challenges of designing resilient buildings and communities. Find out more about RELi at c3livingdesign.org.
Aaron Seward: You said RELi is like LEED for resiliency. So is it about how best to design and construct buildings to stand up to extreme weather events,
Doug Pierce: Extreme weather is part of it. That’s the robustness piece. The RELi action list has multiple categories. It includes everything from extreme events to resource resilience and social cohesion. Resilience emerges from a combination of things. The first category is a panoramic approach. One of the things we tried to do is have a series of credits focused on how you design, building off the integrative process credit that’s in LEED v4. We added more architect- and design-oriented process upfront. It also includes operations, a study about what kinds of hazards you may have, climate issues, sea level rise, extreme weather events, and other types of events that could be an issue to consider for design. The next couple categories are adaptation and mitigation of acute events. Is your building out of the 500-year flood plain? In LEED, it’s the 100-year flood plain; in RELi, it’s the 500-year flood plain. We established sea level rise at 5 or 6 feet as the baseline for projects, and those are conservative estimates. The most recent Climate Science Special Report issued by 13 U.S. federal agencies that came out under the Trump Administration in 2017 said that 8 feet of sea level rise by 2100 is not unimaginable. According to James Hansen, one of the leading climate scientists, we could get as much as 16 feet of sea level rise. Some people are shocked by 6 or 8 feet; RELi’s 5- or 6-foot baseline is grounded on NOAA’s high level of 6-ft-6-in or greater rise. As far as I know, RELi is the first building standard anywhere to stake out a sea level rise number.
Can you talk about some of the specific events that RELi addresses and the measures it proposes for mitigation?
It addresses a series of things: extreme rain, sea level rise, passive survivability, thermal safety —
If you lose power, will your building heat up to the point that it’s dangerous? This is particularly a concern for buildings like hospitals or nursing homes. I’m sure you know the big story out of the hurricane in Florida and the people who died because of the heat level in their building. And Katrina, the stories where people were stuck in hospitals. Staff were breaking windows out because it was getting so hot. So we have a baseline. You can’t let your project get hotter than it is outside, even if the power grid is down. It’s lower for hospitals — 90-degree heat index, which is based on general OSHA guidelines. We might take the baseline for hospitals and similar facilities down to 86. We already have a credit that does that.
There’s criteria for backup energy and power, with a preference for clean energy generation — solar and natural gas or propane, preferably —
a combination of solar, generators, and batteries to operate your building. We’ve got criteria for people who will have to shelter in place, including food provisions and sanitation, like 5-gallon pails. We get to the nitty-gritty when it comes to what to do for an emergency. We have criteria for windows: That’s a potential passive survivability strategy. If you have daylight, you don’t need artificial light. We don’t want to see people take a fortress approach and start designing buildings without windows to make them tougher. It’s particularly salient to places on the coast that are likely to be hit by hurricanes.
Were the RELi recommendations dreamed up by the committee or drawn from other places?
We aggregated from different sources. We said, we don’t want to recreate something if it’s already been done. So we surveyed the landscape, looking for things that support resiliency. We picked up a series of things from LEED and other standards that support resilience, and then we filled the gap for things like thermal safety, sea level rise, etc. We reference things like energy efficiency. Some people ask, what does efficiency have to do with resiliency? If you have an energy-efficient building, you need less emergency backup equipment, less fuel and fewer solar panels, and the fuel you have will last longer. The 2030 Challenge is part of our credit. If you reduce energy use by 70 percent, you only need a third of the backup generation you would need if you didn’t do an energy-efficient building. You can apply that across the board. The RELi baseline for off-the-grid survivability is four days. If you’re going to store onsite water for sanitation or irrigation, the more efficient you are, the less water you have to store. Efficiency is a resiliency thing as well; it’s not just about sustainability.
It sounds like RELi includes quite a lot that you wouldn’t immediately consider as relevant to resiliency.
Exactly. Another important piece to resiliency is community vitality and cohesion. Let’s say you have a robust building that withstands the storm. It’s not enough if the people in the building survived, or if your neighborhood has been designed to RELi and survived — there’s a limited value if people can’t come together to recover. This is a broader discussion about how architecture and design can support community cohesion, so when there is an event — could be economic — people are going to be able to come together as a community and bounce back collectively. For example, RELi has a credit around providing community access to useful space. That includes all kinds of things. Do you have a meeting room for the community? Can your project provide space for car sharing, tool sharing, garden space, a canning kitchen, or even a local community radio station for communication purposes? Anything your project can do that helps build social cohesion. Bike share is a perfect thing. Let’s say you have an event; power’s off; you can’t pump gas for your car because the local station isn’t resilient. What’s the answer? Bicycles. We reference LEED transportation credits and walkability — connectivity improves resilience. These sorts of things are so basic people don’t think about them. Having a sidewalk to walk on can be a big deal. The fundamental social cohesion thing that happens on a sidewalk is saying hi to your neighbor.
You mentioned economic events. I’m guessing recession, depression, the collapse of the markets, and the closing of banks. What sort of measures does RELi put forth to mitigate those sorts of disasters?
This goes back to community vitality. We have a credit for nonprofit organizations and cooperatives, used for things like creating resiliency districts or collaboratives — places where people can actively solve problems together. We also have organizational components, focused on locally produced products and jobs to improve the local economy. Of course, we are springing from the basic idea: What can architects do? Some of it’s on the edge, like the cooperatives. That’s stuff we as architects and designers can’t implement for our clients effectively, but we can encourage them to do those things; we can bring those ideas to the table. Having those things in RELi can help us, as designers, work with our clients to develop more holistic design solutions. We need to go beyond the boundary of our project site. Climate change and socioeconomic disruptions are serious business. Resilience is not very effective if it’s not comprehensive.
Can you speak a bit about the CHRISTUS Spohn project in Corpus Christi? To my knowledge, it’s the only RELi project in Texas at the moment.
Sure. I went down to Corpus Christi to do a workshop with our Dallas office and the building owner. We started going through resilience and working with RELi, and the owner said they’d like to stay up and operating in a Category 4 hurricane. We had the engineers there. Can we deal with wind? Yes. Can we deal with power? Yes. The thing that stopped the discussion was the capacity to flush the toilets. That’s a major issue: sanitation. We started saying, how’s the sanitation going to work? Everybody said the local wastewater plant isn’t going to be operational in a Category 4 hurricane. The owner was going to have to decide whether to have wastewater storage on-site or change their goals. There are things that happen off-site that can affect your project: Another thing that came to light was the impact of an extreme rain event. Even if the hospital is open, the streets around it are likely to flood because the stormwater system isn’t ready to handle an extreme rain event. That’s what happened with Harvey: A bad disaster turned into a full-fledged catastrophe because the stormwater system wasn’t up to the task. If the hospitals are operating, but no one can get to them, it greatly limits their value in a crisis. Issues like that reach beyond the building boundary into the neighborhood and community.
I did a presentation at a Boston Green Ribbon Commission workshop set up to address climate change. The insurance industry was the focus. They are struggling with issues of connectivity. This has become a core stumbling block. All these systems are connected. Just because you’re up and operating doesn’t mean the rest of the community is. This has become a huge discussion about how we’ve structured our economic relationships. We’re acting as individuals, mostly. But here we have an issue that’s hard to solve on your own, as a single entity, a single piece of property. You can do a certain number of things, but at a certain point it’s bigger than you are. We’re trying to address that issue. For example, one of the credits in RELi is about community solar gardens; they can help provide power for the neighborhood. That once again connects back to the idea of why we have cooperatives as a credit. You might want a cooperative to put your solar garden together. We need this connectivity. It’s not going to work if we don’t come together collaboratively as a community — at the local scale or the global scale.