Land Values: What does resilience mean in real estate?

In Vancouver, resilience means a lot of things, including how to build for future uses that don’t exist yet

I first started hearing about the emerging study of resilience 30 years ago. But back then it didn’t have anything to do with cities or buildings or climate change. It emerged from the field of psychology, as researchers observed that a significant proportion of children who came from very troubled families managed to grow up to be well-adjusted, competent adults.

At first, the researchers thought that the capacity for overcoming trauma and dysfunction was the result of special characteristics of those children, something they were born with. But more investigation showed that this wasn’t the answer. Instead, children develop resilience—the capacity to rebound from acute or chronic adversity—because of sometimes hidden supports around them. A single adult, not necessarily a family member, who provides stability and encouragement. Places to go in the community that offer alternatives to a bad home scene. Access to resources that help that child understand what’s wrong with the way people around them are behaving.

Resilience has since become a hugely popular term in all kinds of fields: studies of natural disasters or terrorism; business and organizational theories; materials science and environmental research. And, of course, it has become an almost unavoidable word when it comes to how we build buildings and cities. In the world of earthquake readiness, resilient buildings are the ones that not only don’t collapse completely during a big shock but, ideally, are also ready for use again very quickly afterward. In the climate-change world, resilient buildings are the ones that result in the lowest production of greenhouse gases, both in the way they are built and in how much energy they use when they’re in operation.

But for Vancouver architect James Cheng, who designed Canada’s first building to get zero-carbon certification, resilience is more than that.

For sure, The Stack—which looks like, well, a stack of artfully arranged glass boxes on Melville Street in Vancouver’s central business district—has the engineering, climate-change, fossil-fuel reduction side of resilience built in.

Kevin Welsh at Introba, the consulting company on sustainability for the project, goes through the list. The Stack collects rainwater in tanks that is then used for toilet flushing and irrigation and also holds used water to release it slowly into the city system to avoid flooding it. That’s expected to save 2 million litres of water that would have been taken from the filtered drinking-­water system. It’s designed to be as fossil fuel-free as possible. It’s permanently electric and heat pumps do most of the air heating and cooling, though gas is still needed for getting tap water to high enough temperatures and for the few days a year when the pumps can’t warm the building enough. Those heat pumps, which feed a hydronic system (a.k.a. water in tubes that run through the building), have been placed on the roof to create easy access for future expansions or modifications. It is constructed from a version of low-carbon concrete. It has triple-glazed windows and the glass is tinted in a way that limits overheating on sunny days.

And Cheng takes the concept of resilience even further. A good, resilient building is flexible and adaptable, so that it can take on different uses over the decades and even centuries. It’s not a single-use box that needs to be torn down if the world changes and that kind of industrial or office or tiny-condo-type space becomes outdated. It anticipates future uses. And, most importantly, it’s a building that people want to continue working or living in for a long time.

So when he took over designing The Stack for Oxford Properties (after two other firms had come and gone), he incorporated elements that would help the property meet those goals.

It’s an office building, so it may never have the flexibility of what Cheng sees as the ultimate resilient building—old industrial spaces that have been repurposed multiple times over the past 100 years. But he’s tried to build in resilience in other ways.

“People don’t want to work in a box anymore. They want to be close to nature,” Cheng says. So each of the stacked boxes has an outdoor terrace that allows people to bathe themselves in real air as they look at the spectacular views of the mountains, ocean and city from the 37-storey tower. It has windows that can be opened.

It was also designed to mesh with the system of mid-block alleys and plazas in that area. There’s a sloping path (so wheelchair-accessible) along the eastern side, with a massive sculpture by Indigenous artist Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, complemented by plants that are local to B.C.

And it has an unusual feature on its alley side: a ground-level entrance for cyclists to roll up and get direct access to showers and bike storage—a far cry from the chain-link cages in parking garages that used to be the norm for the two-wheeled set. That alley entrance also has covered spaces for delivery trucks and taxi or limo pick-ups and drop-offs that are now integral to 21st-century transportation. It’s all part of what Cheng calls social sustainability.

Ultimately, both the engineering and the social side are important to what Sean Pander, the City of Vancouver’s green building manager, calls the ultimate goal: producing buildings that age well.

Resilient buildings will need, of course, to be built and operated in an energy-efficient way. They’ll need mechanisms to protect people from overheating and from the smoke that is becoming a regular feature of summer fire seasons—often both at the same time, meaning that opening a window to cool down isn’t possible.

“We don’t want people trapped without any way of protecting themselves,”  Pander says.

But Pander also talks about a building’s flexibility, which makes it desirable because of how it can be used in so many different ways rather than having to be torn down in order to adapt to a new way of working or living.

It’s one of the reasons large suburban homes can sometimes be more resilient, because of the numerous ways they can be used: housing multi-generational families, renting out part of the space to non-family members, using the yard or a room for running a small business. That kind of flexibility is something that needs to be built in to other forms of housing.

“If you don’t have to tear it down, if you can repurpose it and have it age well, then you’re avoiding all those new materials,” says Pander.

Not what the concrete and lumber manufacturers necessarily want to hear. But where the world needs to go.