4 Ways to Increase Resilience in the Built Environment: Responding to the Threat

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The year 2020 will go down in our collective history as the year in which the resilience of our environment, society, and economy came sharply into focus.

The damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to society and the economy, and the need to build back better, have only highlighted the urgency of climate change.

It is imperative to act now – not only to mitigate, but to adapt. 

We are faced with countless threats: wildfires, floods, record low temperatures, heatwaves and cyber-attacks, to name a few. With climate change projections suggesting more frequent extreme weather events, we know we need to increase resilience in the built environment. But how? What options do we have?

Industry, governments, and academia have been considering how to improve the resilience of the built environment for many years. National governments have been especially interested in improving the resilience of critical infrastructure to maintain vital services for citizens. In 2011, the UK Government Cabinet Office published a guide to improving the resilience of critical infrastructure and essential services, which followed earlier work by the US National Infrastructure Advisory Council*. This identified four principal components for resilience:

  1. Resistance
  2. Reliability
  3. Redundancy
  4. Response and recovery

These four Rs can help us increase resilience in the built environment, while considering both the strengths and limitations of each approach.


Resistance is the first option we think of when seeking to increase resilience. It is well understood as providing additional protection so that buildings or other built environment assets can withstand the harmful effects of identified hazards and threats. Buildings are designed to resist seismic loads, coastal defences built to protect coastlines from erosion, and physical barriers are used to guard against attacks and intrusion. Increasing the ability of our assets to resist harm allows them to continue to operate and provide valuable services despite adverse conditions. However, there are significant limitations. Known hazards and threats are usually the design basis for protection measures, meaning they are unlikely to be sufficient for unpredictable events. Therefore, using the resistance component alone can leave assets vulnerable. It may also be unfeasible, either technically or financially, to protect every possible predicted hazard.


Reliability is about designing an asset to operate under a range of conditions. Examples include:

  • Buildings that maintain suitable indoor conditions throughout annual and seasonal temperature changes.
  • Train services scheduled with sufficient frequency and capacity to accommodate peak time passenger numbers.
  • Gas and electricity transmission networks that can continue to operate during extreme high and low temperatures. 

Reliability is similar to resistance in that it avoids downtime and harm, but it also shares the same limitation of a known, designed range.


Redundancy is another approach for increasing resilience. Having spare or back-up capacity allows an asset to continue operating even if conditions are outside of the normal predicated range (or if elements of a system are unavailable). Providing back-up power generators in hospitals or data centres is one example of redundancy. Another example is designing communication networks to have multiple transfer routes and additional bandwidth. Or enabling employees to work both remotely and in offices. Adding redundancy increases reliability by allowing assets and systems to continue to function across a wider range of conditions. A limitation is the cost of providing and maintaining additional capacity that may only be used very infrequently. This extra capacity and cost may be seen as an inefficiency, but it must be considered against the value and benefits it provides in ensuring the asset can continue to function outside of normal operating conditions.

Response and Recovery

The final aspect is response and recovery. This covers both (a) actions taken during events to avoid or reduce harmful effects and (b) the response after events to recover quickly to normal levels of service. 

Actions taken during events could temporarily add any of the above aspects of resilience – resistance, reliability, or redundancy. Erecting temporary flood barriers around a building. Transferring water or power from a neighbouring county, state, or country. Switching to alternative content delivery networks for critical web services. These are all responses that could be taken during an event if the necessary preparations have been made beforehand.

Actions taken after an event may seek to restore a system to normal operations as quickly as possible. Buildings designed so that they can be easily pumped out and cleaned after flood events. Wind turbines that are quickly restarted after strong winds that would damage them. Airports with plans and procedures for responding swiftly to heavy snowfall. There are often opportunities to improve response and recovery actions for existing assets even if it is not possible to increase resilience through other means. The main limitation is that some degradation or loss of service may have to be accepted. 


The growing severity of climate-related risks and, as 2020 has shown us, the risk of global social, health and financial events we cannot anticipate means we will increasingly need to anticipate, respond, and adapt to a range of risks. To increase the resilience of our built environment, we will need to combine all available approaches: resistance, reliability, redundancy, response and recovery. Together they can help our buildings and infrastructure survive and thrive. 

Improving resilience is not only important for risk management, it can also have considerable financial and operational benefits. As risks to buildings are managed effectively, operating costs become lower, and spaces become more desirable. This means lease downtimes are shorter, whilst there is also potential for rent premiums and increased tenant retention. Resilience can translate to higher net operating incomes whilst also growing and protecting value. 

Increasing resilience in the built environment will remain an important aim in our sustainability standards: BREEAM, CEEQUAL, and HQM. We will continue to support a combination of approaches, not only resistance and reliability but also redundancy, response and recovery, as we look to support new and existing assets in an uncertain and changing environment. 

* Cabinet Office (2011) Keeping the country running: Natural hazards and infrastructure

* NIAC (2009) Critical Infrastructure Resilience – Final Report and Recommendations

This article was written by Jonathan Elms, Senior Consultant, Technical Services and Publications, BRE

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