RDI’s Resilient Design Principles – Need Your Feedback

Posted by on May 16, 2013

New Orleans flooding from Hurricane Katrina. Photo: Jocelyn Augustina, FEMA

The Resilient Design Institute held a retreat of our Advisory Board in March and, among other issues, addressed how to describe resilience. Out of that discussion emerged the Resilient Design Principles, which I am posting here.

Consider this a working draft that will evolve over time, but I wanted to get it posted and solicit feedback. What’s missing? Is there redundancy? How could these principles be clarified?

Also included here is the working RDI definition of resilience.

Any and all feedback is welcome. Either use the comments field below to post your thoughts or, if you’d prefer, you can e-mail me directly: alex@resilientdesign.org.

RDI’s definition of Resilience

Resilience is the capacity to adapt to changing conditions and to maintain or regain functionality and vitality in the face of stress or disturbance.

The Resilient Design Principles

  1. Resilience transcends scales. Strategies to address resilience are relevant at scales of individual buildings, communities, and larger regional and ecosystem scales.
  2. Diverse systems are inherently more resilient. More diverse communities, ecosystems, economies, and social systems are better able to respond to interruptions or change, making them inherently more resilient.
  3. Redundancy enhances resilience. While sometimes in conflict with efficiency and green building priorities, redundant systems for such needs as electricity, water, and transportation, improve resilience.
  4. Simple, elegant, passive systems are more resilient. Features like passive heating and cooling strategies for buildings and natural swales for stormwater management are more resilient than complex systems that can break down and require ongoing maintenance.
  5. Durability strengthens resilience. Features that increase durability, such as rainscreen details on buildings, windows designed to withstand hurricane winds, biological erosion-control measures that grow stronger over time, and beautiful buildings that will be maintained for generations, enhance resilience.
  6. Locally available, renewable resources are more resilient. Reliance on abundant local resources, such as solar energy and annually replenished groundwater, provides greater resilience than nonrenewable resources from far away.
  7. Resilience anticipates interruptions and a dynamic future. Adaptation to a changing climate with higher temperatures, more intense storms, flooding, drought, and wildfire is a growing necessity, while non-climate-related natural disasters, such as earthquakes and solar flares, and anthropogenic actions like terrorism and cyberterrorism, call for resilient design.
  8. Find resilience in nature. Natural systems have evolved to achieve resilience; we can enhance our resilience by relying on or applying lessons from nature.
  9. Resilience is not absolute. Recognize that incremental steps can be taken and that “total resilience” in the face of all situations is not possible. Implement what is feasible and work to achieve greater resilience in stages.

Along with founding the Resilient Design Institute in 2012, Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.


  1. Alex – these points seem to me to be well thought out. they will be counter-intuitive to today’s planners, and certainly to today’s development regulations which are minimum standards only. I would add the concept of designed flexibility to items 5 and 7 – to recognize the adaptability of natural systems in item 8. Thanks for all this work clarifying this important concept. Kricket, remarc inc.

  2. The human factor. One component that is missing is the human factor. Communicating within the community to understand and appreciate the need for resiliency is important for the planned systems to work.

    • The draft RD principles have been well thought out – thank you! However I would support and echo Jane’s point about the over-arching need to communicate the need for resiliency and its positive impacts on human health and saftey. As another responder mentioned, these principles will be counter to currently accepted planning thinking. Without some concerted thought about how to layout the background for planners, politicians and the public, I fear the principles will become just a wish list.

      I for one (and I’m sure there will be many others too) am fully prepared to contribute to that thought process in any way I can.

  3. Thank you, Alex, for this honest and comprehensive list, as well as your guidance in this issue. I have shared this post with several young professionals (architects, engineers, community planners) who are joining the community resiliency task force effort for the Central Plains chapter of the USGBC. Your assistance in educating the next generation of leaders in the field is more valuable that can be expressed.

    I’ve also re-posted it to the USGBC’s resiliency priority Yammer page, and hope it generates increased following for your blog.

  4. I would agree with Jane above and say that we are nature, and that strong communities promote resiliency. If we pose a theoretical “10” that echoes “8” such as “Find resilience in community” or something similar, then an interesting symbiosis emerges between points 1 and 6. In the case that we transcend scale as a community via a local source of energy/resource, then we become a sort of conduit, if you will, for resiliency on a cultural level as well as one of survival. In effect we become, as a species, a crucial, balancing element in the diverse, dynamic environment. Well done and inspiring work. Thank you.

  5. Coming in a bit late to this discussion, I wanted to offer up the design principles of permaculture as a source of ideas about resilient design.
    There are lots of permaculture resources around the web, but this page does a good job of outlining some of the basic ideas, and illustrating their relevance to resilience:

    I also want to amplify a central point: The overarching design principle behind all permaculture thinking is to figure out how to fit systems which serve the needs of people, into pre-existing natural systems. This requires both humility (to realize that human activity is not the be-all, end-all of existence) and pattern literacy (to perceive the natural patterns into which one must fit). This approach also supports resilient design directly, by eliminating the conflict between the patterns of the natural system and those of the human-made system which co-exists with it.

    Most of our infrastructure has been designed with little or no thought to the natural context in which it exists, treating nature and natural energy/resource flows as impediments, if they are considered at all. This approach automatically sets up a conflict between human activity and nature, such that the system requires continuous inputs of energy and attention to continue to function. A permaculture design minimizes or eliminates this conflict, and instead tries to turn nature into an ally. Systems designed in this fashion are more resilient because, even if various elements of our infrastructure fail, whatever remains is actively supported by natural process rather than actively degraded by them.

  6. Good morning Alex, I love the definitions. I think that you need an item in there on flexibility. From an engineering perspective, redundancy is not flexibility. The two are different in that when it comes to a redundant electrical system you may have two generators to provide redundancy. A flexible system would have a single generator, be grid-tied, and a battery bank with an dc-ac inverter. Any one those items could provide electrical power as required. For your consideration. Rgds, Mike A.

  7. I am a bit confused. Your definition of resilience reads as if its intention was to address chronic [changing] conditions thereby requiring adaptation. In this context, I am not certain what you mean by adaptation in a building. Buildings are, for the most part, static structures. The Merriam-Webster dictionary has a very concise definition of resilience from which one might be able to borrow much of its connotation so as to accommodate the requisites of the built environment. It reads as follows: “the ability to become strong…again after something bad happens; the ability of something to return to its original shape after it has been …pressed, bent, etc.” Seems the idea here is that of bouncing back to original form, not from a constant deformation attempt but from an acute one, i.e. a hurricane, a tsunami, etc. These events, although more common in latter days, are still rare by comparison. They do not constantly afflict buildings [as the idea of adapting to changing conditions might imply] but, when they do, the city and the buildings in it need to spring back to full pre-event operational capacity. Hence, my personal suggestion for the RDI’s definition of resilience: Resilience is the capacity to tolerate extraordinary conditions to the point of recovering full functionality.


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