Metamorphic Resilience

May 20, 2020
Jessica Glorius-Dangelo Sustainability Manager, Project Captain

Resilience is an important part of survival during and after a crisis. This pandemic has taught us that together we can face any challenge head on, and adapt to a new normal. Together, we can create a stronger, more resilient future. However, if we come out of this crisis the same as before, without adapting and learning, then we will repeat it. This time could be “The Great Realization”—an opportunity for growth, innovation, and revolution. Metamorphic Resilience is the answer.

Metamorphic resilience is our ability to adapt to challenges and come out of them thriving, better able to weather the next storm. We come out of a setback, stronger and wiser than when we entered it. We are forever changed by COVID-19. We collectively owe it to those that fought on the front lines and lost lives to this invisible virus to make clear changes for a better future beyond anything we ever imagined. What lessons can we take away from this experience to better prepare ourselves for the future? The true metamorphosis occurs when we ask ourselves, “How can our buildings then adapt further beyond that initial crisis?” How can we continue to adapt to more uncertain realities we haven’t even thought of yet? How can we make sure we thrive, not just survive?


Resiliency has been a key concept in sustainable design for several years now. Primarily, the focus has been on energy and water in buildings as a way to prepare for an uncertain future caused by natural disasters and climate change. Metamorphic resilience seeks to go just a little bit further, to push our buildings to be true agents of change.

True sustainability encompasses the environment, community, and economics. It cannot thrive without the development and protection of all three. These three pillars are interrelated and necessary for a prosperous future. When the next crisis arises, how can our buildings be the solution for change that allows for metamorphic resiliency? There are five key things to consider as we emerge from this crisis and re-evaluate the built environment around us:

1. Design for People:

When we design for people we must consider their whole health. Physical and mental health are critical in today’s world. This crisis has highlighted the importance of mental health – it is as important as physical health. According to a study by ABC News and the Washington Post, “70% of people are experiencing stress as a result of the crisis, with 36% citing the outbreak has had a serious impact on their mental health” (WGSN). Our built environments should provide adequate ventilation and good air quality, clean drinking water, access to nature and healthy foods, opportunities for exercise and meditation, and easy access to mental health resources to name a few. Furthermore, inclusivity, equity, and transparency should be standard in every project going forward.

2. Design for Environment:

This pandemic has highlighted the impact of the human race on the natural environment. Many cities have seen reductions in emissions from driving less, as we shelter in place and work from home, and increase our use of alternate modes of getting around, like biking and walking. There have even been reports of wildlife returning as a result of decreased human activity. This truly highlights that change and positive results are possible when we all have a common goal for the collective good. These environmental changes have been happy accidents that have occurred as a result of the pandemic. Imagine what can happen if we make massive changes intentionally!

Our buildings need to move towards triple net-positive and regenerative design. Triple net-positive encompasses the concepts of net-positive carbon1, water2, and waste3. These contribute to a regenerative future. One where buildings make the world around them better than before by restoring habitats and natural systems that have long been adversely affected by humans.

3. Design for Economic Security:

We need to design economically for our clients. This must go beyond first cost. Every project should go through a holistic life-cycle cost analysis (LCCA). This process will allow teams and clients to evaluate how the building will stand up over the next 25-50 years. LCCA also looks at the end-of-life costs and consequences. In addition, things like employer health costs, productivity assessments, and other “indirect” costs should be considered to render a complete, robust picture of a building’s impact on everything from first cost and operations to the health and productivity of the occupants.

As we move through this pandemic together, there is an apparent shift to a “meaning economy.” Consumers are re-evaluating their relationship with mindless consumption. Thus, “brands should tap into this via strategies that help consumers feel part of something bigger or via leading a better life” (WGSN). We, as designers and architects, can tap into this by meaningfully designing for the uncertain futures we are facing filled with extreme weather events, pandemics, and climate change. Designing resilience into our buildings is a great place to start. It might cost more money now to prepare for these future realities, but the investment has a strong payback to keep companies running during any uncertainties the future will bring.

4. Design for Adaptability:

Adaptability goes beyond flexibility. Flexibility allows a space to temporarily be used as something else, with minimal changes to the structure or operation of the space as originally intended. Once the need for that change ends, it goes back to its intended purpose. Adaptability is a concept that a space can fundamentally change its function as needs arise without significant disruption to the building, operations, or the environment. Flexibility is important, but adaptability is key to metamorphic resilience.

Resiliency forces us to ask, how can any building prepare for the next pandemic? How can it adapt to sudden changes in the way it operates? For many, our office buildings have been sitting empty while we work from home. That is a waste of a company’s money, energy, emissions, and more. Imagine if buildings had the ability to quickly adapt for appropriate social distancing, cleaning, and still maintain semi-normal operation. As we go forth designing new buildings and renovating existing ones, we must constantly be evaluating and checking against adaptability needs for the future.

5. Design for the Question Mark:

Now that we have designed for people, environment, economics, and adaptability – what’s left? This seems to cover everything, but if there’s one thing this pandemic has taught me is we were completely unprepared for the realities of a global pandemic. This was the greatest question mark the universe could throw at us. We can’t predict everything, but we can design our built environment to be upgraded. We can design our buildings for the next metamorphosis.

As we emerge from what some are calling, the world’s first globally shared experience, it is the responsibility of every architect and designer to ask the harder questions. Our designs need to allow our clients to adapt and pivot to a new reality with meaningful designs woven for people, environment and economics. The task ahead of us is immense, but we have it in our nature as human beings to “face a seemingly impossible challenge, and breathe life into it” (Katharine K. Wilkinson, Living Future 2020). I believe, and have hope, that we can tackle these challenges together. Time to begin.

Key definitions:

  1. Net-positive carbon: According to the Living Building Challenge 4.0, projects supply 105% of their project’s energy needs through on-site renewable energy on a net annual basis, without the use of combustion.
  2. Net positive water: According to Living Building Challenge 4.0, projects must supply 100% of the project’s water need through captured precipitation or other natural closed-loop water systems, and/or through recycling used project water, and all water must be purified as needed without the use of chemicals.
  3. Net-positive waste: According to Living Building Challenge 4.0, projects must strive to reduce or eliminate the production of waste during design, construction, operation, and end of life in order to conserve natural resources and to find ways to integrate waste back into either an industrial loop or a natural nutrient loop.