Thought Leadership

Creating Safe, Habitable Community Spaces During Power Outages

two children looking out at storm over city
Thermal Resilience Community Hub

Sheltering in place during power outages is increasingly common, often in centralized community spaces. With extreme weather events likely to continue to increase in severity and frequency due to climate change, how can the way we design buildings help ensure vulnerable communities stay safe? And how can buildings, especially community hubs, remain habitable during extreme weather events?

The annual Building Performance Analysis Conference & SimBuild held in Chicago this September used a theme of “Better Buildings, Less Carbon: Supporting the Transition to a Clean and Just Climate,” to drive forward the goal of leveraging simulation and modeling over the life cycle of buildings to improve the decision-making process.

lightning storm over city

Event attendees included researchers, practitioners, building owners, and government officials – and alongside the keynote and invited speakers were RWDI’s own Aylin Ozkan, Technical Director and Joel Good, Principal. As specialists on thermal resilience in building design, their presentation at the conference focused on the details of thermal resilience and how to improve a community hub’s thermal performance during extreme weather events to keep vulnerable communities safe. In other words, they examined how building science can help community spaces remain habitable during lengthy power outages.

We spoke to Aylin to get the most important takeaways from this presentation.

Q: What is thermal resilience and passive survivability?

Aylin: Thermal resilience, with respect to climate change, involves buildings adapting to a wide range of weather and climate related disturbances, such as extreme temperatures and severe weather events.

Operative Temperatures During Winter Power Outage
Operative Temperatures During Winter Power Outage
Operative Temperatures During Summer Power Outage
Operative Temperatures During Summer Power Outage

Passive survivability refers to the duration of time an indoor space, such as a community recreation center, will remain habitable after a prolonged power outage due to an extreme weather event.

Q: Why is thermal resilience in buildings becoming increasingly important?

A: We know extreme weather events can cause extended power outages and these events often take place during periods of extreme temperatures. Unfortunately, widespread evacuation during extreme weather events can be challenging, which means many residents will need to be able to shelter in place for longer periods. This means that buildings capable of providing comfort and safety to residents need to be available.

Building with thermal resilience in mind also means added comfort and lower energy bills beyond extended power outages and during extreme temperatures. In fact, these benefits apply for the entire life of the building.

Q: Why is focusing on the thermal resilience of community spaces beneficial for protecting people during extreme weather events, especially when they cause power outages?

A: We know incorporating design elements that make buildings more thermally resilient, and therefore more able to withstand long periods without power during times of extreme weather and storms, is important.

Snow community building

However, it is more difficult to implement the necessary passive design measures to support the thermal resilience of multi-unit residential buildings and, unfortunately, these retrofits are also costly for existing building stock. Community hubs, such as recreation centers and schools, offer a more feasible alternative for thermally resilient design.

By focusing on community hubs, it is possible to offer comfortable and safe spaces for people in need to gather. Populations that are more at risk, such as those in older buildings or housing that is poorly maintained, can be accommodated in community buildings designed to act as temporary emergency shelters.

Q: How do high-performance buildings measure up?

A: There is no requirement or standard that must be met when including thermally resilient design in community buildings. However, well-known, high-performance certifications like International Passive House Standard and CaGBC Zero Carbon Building provided inputs that then show improved thermal autonomy.

Thermal Autonomy Comparison
Thermal Autonomy Comparison

Thermal autonomy refers to the time a building is able to passively maintain comfortable conditions without active system energy inputs (such as HVAC and lighting), over the baseline.

Q: What is the number one takeaway from your presentation?

A: Providing safe and comfortable spaces for individuals to shelter in place during, as well as following, an extreme weather event can be lifesaving.

Providing safe and comfortable spaces for individuals to shelter in place during, as well as following, an extreme weather event can be lifesaving.

When an extreme weather event occurs and knocks out the power in a wide region, the power can be out for an extended period. Until safe, widespread evacuation can take place, residents must shelter in place, and the longer they can do so, the better.

With the proper evaluation of thermal resilience and measures put in place, we can extend the passive survivability, sometimes by days, especially in a high-performance building. 

Check out our Energy Modeling page to learn more about thermal resilience in building design.