Planning for failure: Resilience design

Planning for failure: Resilience design

Devastating flooding in Calgary and Toronto, Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, the rising number of terror attacks across the globe, all catastrophes that share one thing in common: failure. In the face of these severe winds of global change, communities and businesses are scrambling for answers to some of the most complex infrastructure design questions ever raised. Cue the resilience.

As a Royal Engineer in the British Army Alec Hay spent much of his career devising ways to protect. He spent years designing specialized fortifications, from airfields to hospitals, in theaters as diverse as the High Arctic and Afghanistan. This collection of experiences, as one might expect, led to significant revelations.

“Every time we deployed it didn’t matter what happened, we had to continue to operate,” says Hay of his experiences. “When a bomb went off or a site was flooded, we had to continue with the operations that we were there for and our infrastructure had to support that. But infrastructure hardening alone was never adequate.”


Hay recognized that operational success anywhere in the world did not result from operational capacity. In fact, success was almost always determined by the ability to absorb shock and recover immediately thereafter; that is the ability to prepare specifically for failure.

As Hay began to investigate recovery further, he noticed profound responses to not only security questions, but to topics as diverse as economic stability, sustainability, climate change, infrastructure design and the fundamentals of human relationships; Responses that move well beyond engineering alone.

After developing a connection with DIALOG principal Craig Applegath—an architect, sustainability expert, and early proponent of resilient cities—Hay promptly joined DIALOG’s multidisciplinary team of architects, planners and engineers. And now, with Hay in the role of Resilience and Security Planning Leader, the combined design disciplines of DIALOG are expanding the world’s understanding of resilience planning and design.

What is Resilience?

‘Resilience is that essential ability of an operation to respond to and absorb the effects of shocks and stresses and to recover as rapidly as possible normal capacity and efficiency.’ – University of Toronto 

In any disaster, be it a terrorist attack or extreme weather, it’s the ability to rapidly recover from failure that determines survival.

When applied to communities or organizations, resilience looks similar to complex risk analysis, without probability analysis and focused more on design implications. It involves three key features, which are further outlined in Hay’s first book “Operational Survival: Putting Resilience at the Core of Infrastructure Planning. These features are Operational Continuity, Dependency Transition, and Intelligent Resourcing.

Operational Continuity, the unbroken progress of an operation or essential function.

Dependency Transition, the smooth and seamless shift between sources of a given commodity upon which the operation relies, conducted within the tolerances of the operation.

Intelligent Resourcing, The design practice that maximizes the use of locally resourced materials and services through the life of the structure for optimum efficiency of the operation.

This approach to recovery looks well beyond traditional infrastructure design and engineering. Resilience design instead assumes failure, is operations focused, carefully considers risk context to provide business continuity and cost savings in the face of failure, and actually requires improving quality of life. Listen further as he discuss with CBC radio.

“For example, if in the middle of the winter your built-to-code house burns to the ground,” says Hay. “You and your family escape the house and you’re standing outside. If you are not prepared, you will freeze to death. So what you’ve actually done is simply buy yourself a half an hour. You need to quickly recover, you need to find shelter and food in these adverse conditions in order to survive.”

fire 4

We build communities and infrastructure for a purpose and that purpose does not change simply because of a catastrophe, according to Hay. Therefore, we should use the tools of planning, architecture, and engineering design to enable continuity of that purpose during a crisis and its aftermath, as well as during normal times.

“If we build a house to provide shelter and it burns down, the requirement for shelter has not gone away. Therefore, we must plan for our life-support operations and functions to continue and self-recover through a catastrophe and design our shelter to suit.”

Similarly, recovery in the face of catastrophe can be the difference between life, death, and billions of dollars to businesses of every type.

“If you have a data center that experiences a fire, or even a hurricane or a tornado, it doesn’t mean that you can stop operating for any period of time and expect your business to survive. How you choose to manage your risk will determine your chances of survival and resilience planning informs those management decisions. To paraphrase Warren Buffet, ‘Cash flow is king’ and as long as you can continue to trade (or operate), you can absorb capital losses and quickly recover.”

Hay points out Goldman Sachs used resilience planning to successfully manage its trading data storage through Superstorm Sandy and were relatively unaffected by the disaster. In fact, theirs was the only fully operational building in Lower Manhattan immediately following the storm.

“The data shows that 44% of businesses do not reopen after a fire or similar disaster. The fact is, if you are not resilient, if you are not prepared for future failure, your business will not survive.”

Resilient Communities

When he landed at DIALOG, Applegath immediately introduced Hay to another influential multidisciplinary designer in its Toronto studio, Antonio Gomez-Palacio. Hay, the stoic engineer and military man, and Gomez Palacio the outspoken architect-turned-planner and proponent of intelligent city design, found an immediate connection in the integrated firm.

“Alec has an incredible background that moves well beyond engineering,” says Gomez-Palacio. “It has really been fascinating to discuss the integration of our approaches to design and realize how many synergies exist in our work, especially when it comes to developing resilient communities.”

Resilient design pays considerable attention to all of the factors that lead up to catastrophe. To be prepared means careful examination of not only engineering and construction but consideration of social responsibility and sustainability. Elements such as air quality, transportation, and access to services for the people impacted. And that definitely plays to Gomez-Palacio’s integrated design sensibilities.

“As planners we have to look well into the future to be effective,” says Gomez-Palacio. “A community resilience plan is essentially the ability to creatively and collaboratively adapt, respond and recover to current and future change. If you have a community that will support you as either an individual or a business after a catastrophe for example, with prepared first responders, intelligent power supplies, hospitals, shelters, and services, essentially a community that cares for you, you buy time to recover. And these things can be successfully planned for through integrated resilient community design.”

Applegath agrees, saying the addition of Hay as well as DIALOG’s experience and direction makes the firm well suited to the tasks of further defining and deploying resilient design.

“What we get from this approach, which uses the integrated skill sets of planners, architects and engineers, are design solutions that work for both security and sustainability, among many other things, simultaneously. And that is extraordinarily valuable.”

Conflict and climate change share quite a bit in common, particularly when it comes to resilient community design. Both represent significant shocks and stresses to operations. Both demand significant understanding of risk context and indicators such as socio-economics, demographics, health, crime, utilities, and public transport, again all key elements of urban planning. The unusually sharp rise in frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, however, perhaps represents the largest growing threat to community safety and operational continuity.

Slide2Slide1 Slide3

“These types of climate related events are proving more and more difficult to predict and are costing communities and businesses hundreds of thousands of lives and billions, if not trillions of dollars,” says Gomez-Palacio.

In many ways this shift in design is a significant but natural evolution of DIALOG’s sustainable design values. And while the firm’s been striving to reduce the footprint of its designs, it has become increasingly obvious that irrevocable climate change requires adapting to the new reality in addition to mitigating contribution to change. This shifts design emphasis to the more complex approach of resilience.

“Looking at the costs of the flooding in Calgary, the hurricane in New Orleans, etc., they are absolutely staggering,” says Hay. “And right now we are seeing a huge increase in the frequency of these events. Dealing with that means moving the thinking beyond protecting infrastructure against the hazard and towards a better understanding of what that infrastructure is for and therefore what is required to support the continuity of that purpose/ operation. This means managing the changes that can occur over the life of the infrastructure, rather than resisting them.”

Sharing the costs of recovery

Resilience planning and design can save billions of dollars. Its considerations pay careful attention to limiting the ‘logistics burden’ and can also be applied to extremely complicated, often costly, questions of security and sustainability simultaneously.

“Imagine a contractor operating in another country decides to use local builders to work on projects,” says Hay. “They utilize local knowledge, are respectful and collaborative. This approach builds trust and provides jobs and can ease potential community tensions with outsiders. This then makes it easier to do things that generally get in the way of operational success, such as transport or access to energy resources.”

It seems simple, but the cost of building relationships is far less than attempting to operate in a hostile environment, where infrastructure can never entirely keep up. The same can be said for climate change. Designing systems that consider climate change potentially help reduce the future shocks of extreme weather and the costly stresses on infrastructure that follow.

From New York to Ottawa resiliency planning and its efficiencies are having significant influence on infrastructure, security, and climate change initiatives. New York State recently committed $19 Billion in resiliency funding and the Rockefeller Foundation launched its 100 Resilient Cities campaign, for example. And both Hay, also an adjunct professor and former Director of the University of Toronto Centre for Resilience of Critical Infrastructure, and Gomez-Palacio are key contributors to this growing branch of design. This is likely in part because their resilient approach answers the practical components of security design and sustainable design as part of the same budget.

“There is the potential for substantial savings based on informed strategic infrastructure investment decisions and whole risk management,” says Hay. “Resilience design is about the integration of many complex components, from electrical engineering to transportation logistics to emergency planning. But if you apply the principals of resiliency at the start of the design process, integrate it with community planning, architecture and engineering, you can literally save billions of dollars, and more importantly, survive in the face of failure.”


Learn more about Resilience Planning and Design

Leave a comment

That's super that you've decided to leave a comment! Please keep in mind that comments are moderated. So, please don't use a spammy keyword or a domain as your name. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation instead. Thanks for dropping by!