Passive Survivability: The Terminator as a Green Builder

“Passive Survivability’” aims to become “a new design criterion that helps preserve crucial life support in the post-Katrina age.”

The Language of Green: Why Natural Disasters, Terrorism and Home Land Security Are The Green Building Movement’s Best New Buzz Words

Hello America. That Jake Glyenhall movie The Day After Tomorrow about New York City flooding after a freak climate change actually happened. Except it did not happen in New York City. It happened in New Orleans.

Thankfully, Alex Wilson, the founder and executive editor of Environmental Building News and president of BuildingGreen Inc. is making the call for a new building standard called “Passive Survivability,” which he calls “a new design criterion that helps preserve crucial life support in the post-Katrina age.”

Did you ever notice in I Am Legend, that freaky homage to the classic film Omega Man, that the most important thing Will Smith’s character had to fall back on in New York City to keep safe from the man eating ghouls was a secure townhome? This doomsday stuff is all just Hollywood hype, right? Wrong. Hollywood did not write the script for Katrina. Hollywood did not invent the fact that tens of thousands of people died in Europe during 2003 heat waves. That severe droughts happen regularly now and will continue to be a major problem. That 700 people died during a heat wave in Chicago in 1995. That millions of people were left without power and water during ice storms in America and Canada in 1998, two-headed turtles have appeared in Cuba, sea levels are rising in Florida by a whole meter, and one in six women in the U.S. has enough mercury in her body from power plant pollution to affect a fetus.

I found out about all this while listening to Mr. Wilson speak at the recent Northeast Sustainable Energy Association Building Energy (“NESEA”) 2008 conference in Boston. According to him, things will only get worse before they get better, as he noted how 94 percent of the oil consumed by the world has been since 1955- the year he was born. “In one lifetime we’ve burned through something that took all of history to create,” he said.

Peak oil is not coming. It is happening already. Some experts think the price of oil will double in the next five years. Climate change is not coming. It is happening already. As Joel Gordes of Environmental Energy Solutions said at the NESEA workshop on Passive Survivability, “there will be cyberwars, attacks on the centralized electric grid, military conflicts and confrontation between states over food water and energy.”

Is this urgent message really getting out to the public? Yes and no. There’s been a lot of talk and media coverage about green building. Green everything seems to be everywhere right now. But by and large the mass public still does not understand how viable and absolutely urgent it is we all go uber-green right now with how we build office buildings, public facilities and our homes. For example, a recent poll by Pew had terrorism as America’s top concern. The environment was listed at number 8 and energy was even below that at number 9.

So, the bottom line is that the message of the environment and green and running out of oil just isn’t sinking in. There are other things more important to us like terrorism, jobs, and social security.

Luckily, professionals like Gordes and Wilson understand that we need to change the language of green and focus less on the environment when trying to get people to build green buildings. Joel Gordes said at NESEA about Passive Survivability that “global warming and climate change are not environmental issues- they are national security issues.” And he’s right. When there is a catastrophe and the grid fails and energy delivery systems fail, how are you going to power your house and be secure? When that happens it is not an environmental issue- it’s a save-your-own-butt issue.

Passive Survivability involves green building ideas and concepts but it isn’t really about green building and the environment, climate change, and global warming.

Passive Survivability is about security and how to survive when things like the central power grids we rely on too much fail. And yes they have failed. And will fail.

In an article called “Passive Survivability, A New Design Priority for the 21st Century,” Alex Wilson says that “even without a catastrophic event, as world oil production capacity fails to keep up with demand, many experts are predicting fuel supply shortages. There simply may not be enough energy to go around in the not too distant future. These vulnerabilities point to the urgent need to adopt a new building design criteria: passive survivability. Our buildings, especially homes, apartment buildings, schools, and hospitals, should be designed and built to maintain livable conditions in the event of an extended power outage, fuel supply interruption, or water shortage.”

If the Terminator came back to earth today from a distopian, doomsday future, he would know what to do. He would not just be a proponent of green building but he would be a proponent of this new movement coming out of the green building world- Passive Survivability. And there’s nothing passive about it. His house would have wind power and solar electric and solar water heat and collect rainwater and even grow its own food. And that’s the old technology we have already. Surely his Hummer would run on hydrogen he generated from his solar panels.

Dan Miner, Senior Vice President of Business Services for the Long Island City Business Development Corp. and chair of Sierra Club NYC, spoke with me at the NESEA conference and said that “Passive Survivability is a powerful and transformative concept that deserves close study within the green building community. Sure, you can sell high performance building upgrades as a response to climate change. But it should be much easier to promote buildings that can be safely and economically operated after natural disasters, terrorist events, power outages, fuel supply disruptions, and price shocks, all of which are real concerns. Calling for building code modifications to incorporate passive survivability is a great way to prepare our cities for permanently increasing energy costs.”

Miner has written a report calling for New York City to prepare for both climate change and fuel depletion by convening an energy volatility task force, as has been done in San Francisco and Portland, Oregon. He says that “with world oil production expected to peak and begin decline by 2015, we have to prepare for higher fuel prices at the same time we respond to climate change.” Building sustainable communities is the answer for both. The report has been endorsed by nearly 20 organizations, and is available online at

This article was inspired by and written after I attended the NESEA conference in Boston on March 11 through 13, 2008. Thanks to the following for making this article happen: NESEA, Stef at Classic Communications, Cynthia Kudren, Jonathan Schein and

About Paul McGinniss

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