Resilient Design in Japan

posted: April 24, 2016 | author: Nadja Turek

It’s Sunday and I’m on a 12 hour flight to Japan…again. This is trip number three in the last year, and it’s a long way to go to do design work. But when given the opportunity to work on a project that will really make a difference, it’s worth a plane ride to the other side of the planet. In the back of my mind I’m worried about the two earthquakes that shook Japan last weekend (magnitude 6.5 and 7) and hoping we don’t have another one while we’re there. Of course, it makes me think of the massive earthquake, Tsunami and nuclear disaster Japan suffered five years ago. I was riveted to the news when it happened, as were many, feeling very distant and powerless while such terrible tragedy unfolded. I wonder, how do we design buildings that are appropriate for Japan?

Our client in this case is Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), and our task is to design them facilities to station nine CV-22 helicopters and their operators, maintenance and command staff at Yokota Air Base, Japan which is in the greater Tokyo area. You’ve heard of the Navy SEALs? AFSOC is the Air Force equivalent. One telling detail about AFSOC’s people is that the special operators themselves are considered a “weapon system” which can be employed by our country. They are a critical military capability and the operators coming to Yokota will respond all over Asia-Pacific when and where ever needed. So our job is to give them a resilient campus from which they can launch at any time, despite any natural or man-made disruptions.

“Resilience” is the capacity to adapt to changing conditions and maintain or regain functionality and vitality in the face of stress or disturbance. Many think of resilience as the capacity to bounce back from disruptions. Resilient design combines sustainable design strategies with physical security improvements. It mixes infrastructure upgrades such as seismic design and energy efficiency projects, and combines place-making with disaster preparedness. It’s a design paradigm that takes many “old ideas” in design and applies them to a new purpose.

We are designing five buildings in the AFSOC campus which are served by a centralized parking lot and connected by a pedestrian network inside the campus. Keeping cars out of the campus allowed us to save space and money by eliminating the threat of a car-born bomb close to the buildings, which then reduced stand-off distances between buildings and the cost of blast design. A pedestrian campus is also a healthier, more welcoming work environment than one designed primarily for cars. We used passive physical security features, like high curbs in key places and strategically placed entry doors, to provide anti-terrorism design unobtrusively. Commercial vehicles can enter the campus to make deliveries via a gated access road. Seismic design is also an obvious must in Japan.

Invisible to the eye is the campus’ microgrid. The campuses’ electrical backbone has the capability to disconnect or “island” from the power grid during an outage and operate independently if the campus has its own on-site generation or energy, water or thermal storage. The campus includes a water tower for water storage and pressure during an outage. And we designed the campuses’ buildings to have prominent south facing, sloped roofs to host photovoltaic (PV) panels which will generate local power. However, PV panels are not a reliable source of back-up power on their own. They only generate on a sunny day, and they cannot feed electricity into the grid unless there is another, main supply of power on the grid for safety reasons. Therefore, the final piece of the resilient power system will either a battery bank or on-site generators. This trip will determine the direction our client takes. Depending on its design, the microgrid could also offer the base and its utility the ability to employ demand response energy management which can save money.

In order to continue to operate during times of power grid outage, our resilient campus combines local energy and water sources, with a smart microgrid, and then adds to that high-performance sustainable buildings, which are extremely energy- and water-efficient compared to building code. It times of grid outages, more efficient buildings (at least 30% better than ASHRAE 90.1-2010 code) require less stored power or generators to maintain function longer. Our buildings also maximize the use of daylight in occupied spaces, a helpful strategy during outages.

Another mature design idea to help create resilient people and communities is good place making. Place-making is a concept in planning and design where one creates a space where people want to be; where people feel comfortable; where they choose to gather together, or find peace and quiet…whatever function the space or place is designed to provide for the people who will inhabit it. Strong place-making is an important part of the art of good design and a lack of good place-making leads to public spaces or buildings that feel sterile and unwelcoming. AFSOC’s special operators will take off from Yokota, execute real world missions that require the world’s most elite Airmen, and return back to Yokota again. We made it a priority to provide these Airmen places of respite and solace where they could find quiet and privacy; places of gathering and solidarity where they can come together to build esprit de corps; and places of ceremony for formal military functions within the landscape design of the campus. Before, during and after a disruption Airmen will need to connect and offer mutual support and find services. By implementing good place-making before a shock, those places already exist in the fabric of a campus. After all, a campus is only as resilient as its people.

So yes, Japan is a long way to go to do design work. But the opportunity to support AFSOC and their mission is worth it. It’s a privilege to be working on this project, applying resilient design for our Airmen. We’ve put in a great deal of research, innovation and collaboration and there’s a long way to go still. We’ll see what twists and turns come next at this meeting in Japan… Fingers crossed: no earthquakes.

1 Resilient Design Institute,