COMMENTARY ONLINE EXCLUSIVE

The need for a resiliency framework and accreditation of buildings in Malaysia

Exterior view of high rise residential apartment buildings in the district of Bangsar South, Kuala Lumpur; image by Steve Lovegrove/Shutterstock

By David Mizan Hashim

One of the important questions that has arisen in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic is how the disciplines of urban planning and architecture can respond with better and more rigorous design intent. What is needed today is to not only make our cities and buildings safer and more user-friendly in times of crises, but also more resilient, durable and adaptive in the face of future environmental and/or social disturbance.

RESILIENCY VS. SUSTAINABILITY

One of the crises is of course climate change, a threat that we are now facing as a species. In fact, there is some conjecture that the COVID-19 crisis is a timely testing ground for our ability to respond to this much larger looming challenge to humanity.

It has also become increasingly obvious that the ‘sustainability agenda’ popularised in recent years to address the challenges of climate change is insufficiently instructive as a design tool for the built environment. For instance, to deal with the disruption caused by immediate disasters such as the recent pandemic, a Green Building Index (GBI) platinum-rated building did not perform any better than an uncertified one in relieving the discomfort and disruption forced upon the populace by the Movement Control Order (MCO) and social distancing protocols.

Something is missing in the debate: resiliency, which is not synonymous with sustainability.

Resiliency is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, while sustainability is the ability to maintain a certain rate or level over an indefinite period of time. The two concepts should be intertwined. Resiliency is therefore about quickly and consistently being capable to overcome immediate crisis/disturbances whereas sustainability is about establishing and maintaining the systems required to assure long-term resiliency.

There are many types of possible disturbances or crises facing the built environment, for which resiliency is a much-needed remedy. Threats can be broadly described as either environmental/natural or social/man-made, and Malaysia is particularly prone to the following:

Environmental/natural: Storms, floods, landslides, droughts, pestilence, temperature rise, sea-level rise
Social/man-made: Epidemic/pandemic, haze/pollution, water shortage, power shortage, sanitation disruption, telecommunications failure, riots, terrorism, crime, financial crisis, structural failure, fire, food shortage, fuel shortage

WHAT DOES RESILIENCY ENTAIL?

To design a city or a built environment with resiliency means to start the design process by thinking carefully about the typical usage scenarios. Following that, common points of stress due to abnormal use must be considered, as well as the most likely disaster situations in the natural or man-made environment, which could challenge the integrity of the city and its built environment. The local context (social, environmental, etc.) always becomes one of the critical success factors for resiliency, and so the design should be specific to local conditions.

 

Resiliency must incorporate sustainability into its framework to be holistic, because most sustainability considerations involve factors that determine how less dependent (if not independent) a city, building or place can be upon resources such as fossil fuels, external electrical grid and central water supply. The less reliance there is on these external (thus non-assured) resources, the more a city can achieve resiliency.

An important enabler of resiliency is digital technology, empowered by active data-driven smart systems to manage energy and water supply, traffic/transportation control, security, information, recycling, etc. In fact, a smart city often corresponds closely with resiliency considerations. A smart city or building can anticipate the impending disturbance/crisis by analysing data inputs and making self-adjustments to limit the discomfort and negative impact to its inhabitants.

For example, if environmental data suggests a possible drought, a smart, resilient water management system would ration consumption, increase storage, administer warnings and seek alternative emergency supplies. If social data suggests civic unrest, a smart, resilient security management system would increase monitoring, secure entrances, restrict traffic, prepare medical attention, etc. All these responses would be towards the goal of reducing the danger and discomfort as well as protect the health and well-being of the occupants.

In addition to the above examples of adaptability to future challenges, resilient buildings must be more self-sufficient in terms of facilities and amenities than their predecessors. This is because periods of crisis are often followed by partial or complete lock-downs of buildings, neighbourhoods or even whole cities. As such, it is important that a wider range of amenities than normal be provided for social interaction, exercise and recreation by the residents/users. Instead of a single central (and therefore vulnerable) location for all such spaces, distributing multiple, smaller facilities throughout the building or area would increase its effective resilience to external shock.

In our structuring of a framework, we opine that buildings and places of the future need to be more:

  • Self-reliant
  • Protected from external threats
  • Flexible in their usage
  • People-centric in their design
  • Adaptable to future demands

And less:

  • Time-consuming to design and build
  • Costly to construct and operate
  • Environmentally harmful
  • Energy consumptive
  • Reliant on centralised systems

External areas/boundary, building envelopes, natural ventilation. In terms of a practical checklist framework for the design of resilient and sustainable buildings and places, the following are some of the key criteria:

  • Public areas, balconies, car parks and other common facilities
  • Lifts/vertical circulation along with emergency stairs
  • Power, water and emergency gas supply with a smart system
  • Telecommunication support; refuse management

RESILIENCE ACTION LIST (RELi)

There have already been considerable efforts to formulate a framework for resiliency in a built environment. The most advanced is probably the Resilience Action List (or RELi), created by the RELi Cooperative (a collaboration of USA-based consultants and academic partners), which has been a work-in-progress over the last few years.

Essentially, RELi is a project rating system similar to LEED, but with added emphasis on resiliency. It combines a comprehensive list of resilient design criteria with the latest in proven integrative process for developing next-generation communities, neighbourhoods, buildings, homes and infrastructure. The RELi scheme identifies resilience-based actions and aggregates action items from other sustainable guidelines that support resiliency.

Unfortunately, RELi is too USA-focused to be applicable in the Malaysian context. Eventually, an outline framework of local resiliency factors should be developed with metrics to build a scoring system whereby Malaysian cities, buildings and places can be graded according to their standard of resilience. This will be similar to the existing Green certification systems in Malaysia today.

It would be a truly useful framework of planning and design considerations for our cities, buildings and public spaces to prepare for any threats, dangers and crises that Malaysians shall face in the future.


About the author:

David Mizan Hashim is the Founder, Group President and Director of the VERITAS Design Group. His academic credentials include a Bachelor degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a Master in Architecture from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), USA. David is also a Fellow of the Malaysian Institute of Architects and a member of the ASEAN Architect Council, the Association of Consulting Architects of Malaysia and the Malaysian Institute of Interior Design. He has been the principal-in-charge of numerous award-winning architectures, planning, interior design and landscape design projects by VERITAS, in Malaysia and overseas.

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