This article is the second installment of a three-part series checking in with past winners of the Hanley Award for Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Housing. Click here for the first article, a Q&A with Edward Mazria, FAIA, of Architecture 2030. 

After more than a quarter of a century of shaping environmental journalism and the way we view green building practices, Alex Wilson, founder of BuildingGreen and Environmental Building News based in Brattleboro, Vt., won the Hanley Award for Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Housing in 2010. The award’s $50,000 prize allowed Wilson to reassess where he’d been and where he wanted to go next–both literally and metaphorically. Wilson took an eight-month sabbatical, and then returned with a fresh perspective and a new mission.

Why did you choose to take a leave of absence?

Wilson: I wanted to get away and focus on the big picture. I thought about various trips to start that sabbatical and opted to bike through the American Southwest. To get over the Rockies in March, I had to be pretty far south. During the six-week trip, I covered more than 1,900 miles in a beautiful part of the country with big open space and little traffic. I spent a lot of time alone and it gave me time to reflect on where the green building movement is heading and what I want to do during the latter part of my career.


What type of insights did you gain?

I’d been involved in post-Katrina work on The New Orleans Principles, and I’d been thinking about the ability to bounce back after a disturbance. The homes that did the best without power following the hurricane were older and relied on vernacular architecture, such as wraparound porches that shaded windows and tall ceilings with good breezeways. We looked at how to build to maintain comfortable conditions and used the term “passive survivability” to convey that idea—but the term conjured up survivalism or a bunker mentality. I realized that “resilience” was a better word and [that it] can extend beyond buildings to include communities and food issues. I came back refreshed and dug in to writing on the concept of resilience at home. The following spring, I cut back at BuildingGreen and launched the nonprofit Resilient Design Institute to focus on these ideas.


What are you hoping the Resilient Design Institute will accomplish?

One role of the organization is to provide information through the website, fact sheets, public speaking, social media, and articles. We want to be an information clearinghouse on resilient design on both the building and community scale to highlight practical solutions that can be implemented by building owners, building professionals, homeowners, and municipalities. 

I also want to advance the metrics of resilience, and this is my biggest focus today. What are we aiming for in creating resilient buildings? What defines habitable conditions? I’m not talking about comfort here; I mean understanding the boundaries that define livability. For example, if your house loses power for three weeks, is it going to keep you and your family safe? People might be able to deal with 100-degree temperatures for a few days, but probably not for one or two weeks. We can design homes today in Vermont where you could shut off all heat and survive the winter using well-insulated building envelopes and passive solar gain, but we don’t know how far we have to go to achieve goals like these. At the Resilient Design Institute, we’re digging in to what the goals really are and how to get there.

We’d also like to develop methodologies for community assessments of resilience. We need funding, but the idea is that communities could come to us for guidance on evaluating vulnerabilities with their buildings, water systems, automobile dependence, and even food security.

Finally, the organization is working to expand the intersection between green building and resilience. I’d like to work with green building rating systems such as LEED, the Living Building Challenge, and Green Globes to help their requirements better address resilience. I also would like more traditional emergency response programs like FEMA to better address sustainability in recovery and rebuilding after an event.


How will your emphasis on resiliency affect your career?

I’ve been working for 30-plus years to make our buildings and communities more sustainable, and I see resilience as a new motivation to do that. Readers of your magazine are committed to sustainability, but a big segment of society doesn’t believe in climate change. I believe those people still want to keep their children and grandchildren safe in the face of an unexpected event such as a tornado or flood or cyber-terrorism, where hackers take down a large power grid. Resilient strategies accomplish that and simultaneously move us toward sustainability. Vernacular design is an important part of the strategies we are pushing for: taking the best of our grandparents’ ideas like passive cooling and heating and combining them with today’s advanced materials, such as R10 glass in our windows. Getting the support from the Hanley Award was instrumental in launching the institute. I’m very excited about resilience and what that offers looking ahead.

Click here to read the 2010 Hanley Award profile on Wilson. The Hanley Award, which carries a $50,000 cash prize, is given out annually by The Hanley Foundation, a non-profit foundation that provides funding for housing, environmental, and other causes. Michael Hanley, retired chairman and co-founder of Hanley Wood, started the family foundation in 1999. In addition to funding the Hanley Award for Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Housing, the foundation supports local entities helping to provide shelter, such as Friendship Place in Washington, D.C., the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Click here to read about the 2013 winner of the Hanley Award: Dennis Creech, executive director and co-founder of Southface, a leading advocacy and research organization promoting sustainable homes, workplaces, and communities.