How Buildings with LEED and PEER Certification Make us More Resilient to Disaster with Hon. Katherine Hammack



“Doing it now at your leisure is much better than doing it at haste during an emergency.” -Katherine Hammack



In disaster preparedness, the need for resilient buildings is often overlooked. Resilient buildings are those that can withstand the effects of a disaster and continue to function as needed. They include things like emergency communication systems and energy efficiency measures that ensure that utilities aren’t compromised by damage. By taking steps now to make our buildings more resilient before disaster strikes, we’ll be better equipped when it does hit—and that can make all the difference between staying safe or not.

And when it comes to resilience, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and PEER (Performance Excellence in Electricity Renewal) certifications are some of the most important building standards in existence today—and they’re gaining traction fast. LEED is a globally recognized rating system that provides a framework for healthy, highly efficient, and cost-saving green buildings, while PEER is the world’s first certification program that measures and improves power system performance and electricity infrastructure. 

These certifications indicate that our buildings are safer, more energy efficient, more reliable, and more innovative than conventional buildings. It means less strain on the environment, more security to people, and less building cost! In addition, when a disaster strikes, we won’t have to worry about whether or not our buildings will be able to handle it. These certifications are proof that we understand how the building industry fits into our world—and how it can help us make sure we’re all prepared for whatever comes our way.

Listen in as Jennifer and Hon. Katherine Hammack, the Senior Director of Green Building Council Inc. (GCBI) discuss more about these certifications and how they can help us be more resilient in the era of mega disasters. 





  • 02:03: GBCI and Its Role in Sustainable Building
  • 07:42: Sustainable Building vs Unsustainable Building
  • 10:41: How CLT Wood is Making a Difference
  • 17:12: Go Above Building Codes
  • 21:06: The True Cost of Unsustainable Building  
  • 26:43: Rebuilding After a Disaster with the LEED and PEER  Standard
  • 29:03: Microgrids Contribute to Resilience
  • 34:16: Build Back Better
  • 40:27: Adapting to Disaster
  • 44:00: NOW is Better than LATER



We know that our buildings are important to us, but did you know that they’re also important in a much broader sense such as strengthening disaster resilience? Hear it from @JenGrayThompson and Hon. Katherine Hammack Director of Special Projects at the @usgbc. #Recover #Rebuild #Reimagine #NorthBay #podcast #wildfire #DisasterRecovery #AfterTheFire #Season3 #HowToDisaster #USGBC #sustainablebuilding #greenbuildings #buildingcodes #renewableresources #tech #innovation #climatechange #powergrid



04:53: “Sustainability is good for the environment, this generation, and for future generations.” Katherine Hammack 

09:00: “If your building stopped breathing, it’s like a person not breathing.” Katherine Hammack

15:13: “When you look at materials, you want to look at them across their lifecycle… you want to look at a lot of different characteristics.” Katherine Hammack

21:43: “Should we have to wait for a disaster to do what we know is right to do? We have the tools to know what right looks like. We have the tools to know what resilient looks like.” Katherine Hammack

22:23: “The cost of building back is higher than the cost of doing it right in the beginning.” Katherine Hammack

22:46: “It’s not all about new construction. We always like to think new construction is easy, but how you maintain and operate your existing buildings is important.” Katherine Hammack

35:13: “Change your habits to accommodate the power.” -Katherine Hammack

38:57: “We can all do our part— even little contributions. Think through your habits and what you can do.” -Katherine Hammack  

42:07: “The materials, the construction styles, and the landscaping are changing as we’re having to adapt to the increasing number of disasters that we’re seeing.” -Katherine Hammack

43:26: “The level of preparation for natural disasters is fundamentally a personal decision or a business decision.” -Katherine Hammack

46:41: “Doing it now at your leisure is much better than doing it at haste during an emergency.” -Katherine Hammack


Meet Katherine:

Honorable Katherine Hammack serves as Director of Special Projects at the GBCI. She rejoins the USGBC family after having worked as one of the founding members over 30 years ago. She has many years of experience in energy, sustainability, utility, and infrastructure operations, and is delighted to come back to help advance tools to improve the built environment. A graduate from Oregon State University with a degree in Mechanical Engineering as well as a Masters in Business from the University of Hartford, Hon Hammack couples a strong background in energy and engineering with her goal of building a better working world for future generations. Katherine serves on numerous boards and advisory committees, including the ASHRAE Board of Directors and the Board of Directors of Slipstream, a non-profit organization that creates, tests, delivers, and scales the next generation of energy efficiency and renewable energy programs that move us farther, faster toward a clean energy economy. 

Hon. Hammack was appointed by President Obama as the Assistant Secretary of the US Army for Installations, Energy, and Environment in 2010. She served in that capacity, through 2017, with responsibility for policy development, program oversight, outreach, and coordination of a wide variety of Army activities overseeing all of the Army’s installations. Under her leadership, the Army instituted a net-zero program for energy, water, and waste. This program focused on efficient and effective resource management, on Army bases, to increase resiliency and reduce operating costs. She initiated the Army’s renewable energy program to increase the resiliency and readiness of Army installations through on-base power production, microgrids, and energy storage initiatives. She also implemented programs to double the number of energy savings performance contracts in the Army. 

Hon. Hammack’s career includes work in sustainability consulting, for several electric utilities, manufacturing, and product management. She has also received recognition as an ASHRAE Fellow and Distinguished Service recipient; the DOD Decoration for Distinguished Civilian Service in 2015 and 2017 for exceptional leadership in the US Army; the Association of Defense Communities President’s Award in 2016 for leadership in advancing innovation; and the USGBC Leadership Award 2015 for outstanding leadership in the public sector. 

Connect with US Green Building Council/ USGBC: 



Jennifer Gray Thompson: We’re back for another episode of the How to Disaster Podcast where we help you recover, rebuild and reimagine. Today, our guest is Katherine Hammack, and she’s the Director of Special Projects at the Green Business Certification Inc or GBCI. GBCI is the premier organization for independent review and credentialing of green business industry performance and practice standards. In short, they help monitor, assign LEED and PEER certification to professional groups and individuals that demonstrate sustainable building practices, green building and quality improvement. It’s an important area to understand as new homes are being built to better standards, and that includes rebuilding after a fire. 

Really happy to have Katherine on the show today to actually help educate our audience and this host in what role does GBCI can never say that plays a role in rebuilding and how communities can better prepare for natural disasters. Something that most people don’t know is that we actually spend about six times as much responding to a disaster after the fact than we do in funds for resiliency. In other words, if you spend $1 on the front end, you actually save another $5 on the back end. This is one of the reasons why we wanted Katherine on the show today so she can help educate both the audience and me on the role that they play, and how we can actually build that better in a way that doesn’t make people who’ve lost everything have to incur much higher costs, but at the same time, pays attention to the needs around climate change. So thank you so much for joining us. 

And once again, I’m so happy to have Katherine on the show. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and also your organization?

Katherine Hammack: Certainly. My name is Katherine Hammack, and I am with GBCI, which is the Green Building Certification Incorporated, part of the US Green Building Council. And our mission is really to try and make the world a better place, and we do that through several means. The main is LEED, Leadership and Energy and Environmental Design, which many have heard about, I’m sure. But that really is how to build and design a sustainable building, a building that is good for the people who occupy it, and it’s good for the environment, and it uses less water and less energy. And really, LEED is a menu of a lot of different things you can do. And depending upon how many of those best practices you implement, your building gets a rating whether it’s certified or silver gold. Of course, the pinnacle is platinum. And if you get a platinum rating, that means you’re really focused on sustainability in the built environment. And so after LEED was developed almost 30 years ago now, we came up with other programs at the request of customers to cover things that LEED did not. And one of those programs I’m focused on that we’re going to talk about today is called PEER, and that’s Performance Excellence in Electricity Renewal. Sorry.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: No, no, don’t be sorry, acronyms are hard. One of the things I love about doing this podcast is that we don’t expect anybody to know coming into this, and so it’s okay. Yeah, it’s all good.

Katherine Hammack: I call it PEER all the time, and I very rarely define it. So I think it’s important to define it, and defining that a sustainable power grid is important to sustainable buildings. And so PEER defines the power grid, whether it’s the power grid that a university has, a power grid that a hospital complex could have, even an entire power grid serving a city pier gives guidance and best practices on how to have a reliable and resilient power grid. And certainly, that’s important as we’re seeing climate change impacts affect the power that we receive.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Thank you so much for that. Let’s get into some of the definitions before we go into how this fits into the space of disasters. So we often hear the terms resilience, resilient, resilience and sustainable. Can you go into what’s the definition, like how does that actually play out when you’re talking about sustainability in particular.


“Sustainability is good for the environment, this generation, and for future generations.” -Katherine Hammack


Katherine Hammack: When I think about sustainability, I think that there’s something that is good for the environment this generation and for future generations. And so that’s why when we talk about sustainability in buildings with LEED, we’re talking about the materials that go into the building, we’re talking about the way you use energy, the way you use water, indoor air quality, all of those have impact on the first people who occupy the building and the long term operation of the building. Resiliency is really the ability to withstand and then bounce back from adverse climate impacts. And the two do have some crossover, but they do have uniqueness in their own rights. And so when we talk about, for instance, rebuilding communities, when we talk about rebuilding communities, we look at a couple of things. One is site selection. Where are you building? Not only what are you building, but where are you building? I heard someone say, we’ve rebuilt this top road three times in the last five years. Okay, maybe that tells you something. Maybe that tells you that the road shouldn’t be there, or you shouldn’t rebuild it the same way. So site selection is a big part of the program. Stronger buildings is something that is important for LEED. And we’ve seen some communities that were affected by tornadoes where entire communities were wiped out, they rebuilt back to LEED standards. We also saw in some communities, actually Superstorm Sandy, you saw a row of houses all decimated, and one that was still standing up. And that was a LEED building. It was built to last longer, and to make a better use of resources. And the third thing is power infrastructure. Not only do you need to build on appropriate sites and build stronger, but you need robust power infrastructure. And that’s what PEER is for. PEER is the lead for power systems, we call it, and it’s a framework for resilient and reliable power.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Before you, I had not heard that before, and this is what I do. And so I actually really love learning from people like you who have these very vastly different skill sets than I do, and I consider it a moment of privilege. I know that you make me better at my job just from the way you’re describing all of these things. Do you think for the audience, you can talk about what a building looks like when it’s not resilient, not sustainable, not healthy for the people inside of it? We think of buildings as being inert, but they’re actually not. Can you talk about that?


“If your building stopped breathing, it’s like a person not breathing.” -Katherine Hammack


Katherine Hammack: Well, there’s always these case histories of things that didn’t work. One was a nursing home where elderly people don’t like drafts. And so the maintenance guy in doing what he thought was good for the residents, he closed off all the outside air intakes so you wouldn’t get a draft from outside air coming in. The problem was that it bottled up bad air. See, buildings need to breathe just like we breathe. You need to inhale, and then you need to exhale. And what we exhale is loaded with carbon dioxide is one of the things, but it’s also loaded with germs and bacteria. So that if there’s flu in a building that’s not healthy, that doesn’t have good indoor air quality. You see flu recirculating around to the point where everybody gets it. Where if you have outside air coming in, if the building is able to breathe, but outside air coming in, then you will see reduced impacts from flu. You will see better air quality and better health than people. And that’s one of the examples I like to use. It’s not always a good one. But if you’re building stop breathing, it’s just like a person not breathing.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, it’s actually a really good segue into one of the main vulnerabilities that buildings have, and a wildfire is ember cast. And where the building breathes is often where the ember cast also finds its way into the building, especially homes with air vents that aren’t vents that have not changed out. My own has not, so for the record. So can you talk about that? Like, yes, they need to breathe, but there’s vulnerabilities that are built into it that need to breathe.

Katherine Hammack: There are, but it’s also how and where the vents are located. You’re absolutely right about ember. I mean, that’s really one of the biggest issues. And when I think about embers, I think about them, khachigian gutters that haven’t been cleaned. You have this nest egg of dry tinder just as if you were starting a fire and the ember lands in it and your stuff that is stuck in that gutter, then catches on fire until it gets warm enough that it starts catching other things on fire. And so you want to be able to ensure that you don’t have areas that provide tinder for embers. And so you can block off or prevent against embers coming in through screening, filters and other things like that. But yeah, protecting against embers is one thing. I will tell you that I’ve seen some people say, well, then we shouldn’t build with wood. And I disagree with that. 

There’s fascinating new material and certainly materials selection is a big part of protecting against wildfire. But this new material is called cross laminated timber, I only have a piece of it here. And I love CLT. And if you think of it, it’s wood going different directions. And these are thin pieces of wood that can come from fast growing wood so you don’t have to wait until it gets too big in diameter. But it’s been in Europe for quite a few decades now, and it’s engineered wood. It has increased dimensional stability, strength and rigidity, and fire protection. And so that’s what’s fascinating is that researchers have done testing on it, and they find that they char, but they char very slowly. Instead of smaller diameter wood, if you think of two by fours, or some of your siding, it’s a much thinner wood versus this is a thicker wood. And it’s fascinating how this goes together. It’s like Lego. They stack it up, and they screw it together with like 12 to 18 inch long screws. It comes in multiple panels, and it’s been in three, five storey buildings, residential, commercial, and it helps buildings go together faster, be more resistant against fire. It’s better seismically because there’s some flex in it. It’s just a fascinating new kind of product that is available to give you resistance, better durability, better strength and better resilience against fires.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: So now, I’m super curious because I always love the field of innovation and technology as it relates to just about anything. But of course, especially wildfire, what’s the cost and differential of that product compared with regular, your basic two by fours, the people use now.

Katherine Hammack: Well, if you think of right now, most buildings are built on site, and you can watch them go up. They do this lab, and then they do the framing, and then they fill it in, etc. CLT is all done on computers in a factory, and they built the panels, and the panels come, hook panel A, panel B, panel C, etc. So you have reduced on site labor, you have reduced material waste, and you have a more structurally strong building. This can be your exteriors. It can be your interior wall. In other words, you don’t have to insulate it because it’s self insulating.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Interesting.

Katherine Hammack: And it goes together really fast. So I saw a whole hotel built after the foundation was in in four weeks.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Wow. It’s interesting is that like with 3D printing, there’s some homes going up in Redding, I think 24 of them in a partnership with the City of Redding where they are going to, they’re doing it right now where they’re printing out homes in cement. Essentially, what that means is not actually healthy with the material, but they’re using a particular byproduct of it, or a product related to cement. And one of the things they say is, well, this can be up in 48 hours, or four days, or whatever it is, but then you still have to build out the center of it. But this is very compelling to me because I do believe that the way that we’re going to make it through is through a variety of products, a variety of ideas, and it has to match what’s actually going on in that town. But I would love to see something, like what you’re showing us, it’s a CLT, the more we use it, the more it will come down and cost as well. Very exciting. Yeah.


“When you look at materials, you want to look at them across their lifecycle… you want to look at a lot of different characteristics.” -Katherine Hammack


Katherine Hammack: And it also uses a material that helps the environment. So when you grow a tree, it sequesters carbon. And yes, you take it down and you make it into a construction material. But you’re also then replant and you sustainably have this regenerative material versus other materials, like a cement or a steel is extracted from the earth and it’s not regenerative. And so when you look at materials, you want to look at them across their lifecycle. Not only initially strong, but operationally, how does it wear and tear? Is it good for the environment at the beginning, at the middle, at the end? You want to look at a lot of different characteristics.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, I know that one of the hardest things to watch, we had our wildfires here in Sonoma County in 2017, our biggest one, and then we’ve had several since then. Of course, mega fires, really. But we didn’t necessarily build back any differently than we burned down. Like we, of course, they’re more energy efficient, that’s for sure. But lumber was the primary resource that people use, and I’m not judging them. That’s not what I’m here to do, but it wasn’t exactly a totally innovative rebuild at all. And I’ve gotten comments since then. I’ve always said, well, please do, like we invite you to do that. One of the issues as always related to cost, though, is that you don’t want to build in another systemic inequity to actually rebuild back by mandating that material. But instead, how do we incentivize using capitalism, if you will, in order to bring the cost down? A lot of supply, I’m sorry, a lot of demand, hopefully, we’ll build in some cost savings for people who do want to build back and they do want to build back better, and they want healthier material for their families, and they want something that will last as well. So I’m excited that you brought this forth because any ideas like that I think are going to help us absolutely as we’re helping new communities in Boulder County, the Marshall Fire, there’s a lot of homes that are going to be rebuilt there, about 1200, and it would be wonderful for them to have more access to materials like that.

Katherine Hammack: Absolutely. One of the challenges is building codes.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Let’s jump to the building code, please do, and then we’re gonna get to all the rest of the questions. But let’s talk about building codes.

Katherine Hammack: If you think about building codes, building codes set a legal minimum standard for construction. And so for increased resiliency, many owners decide to do more. And that’s where LEED impure programs come in. They have strategies for doing more, for doing above and beyond. So one, when someone says I built a code compliant building. That’s the worst building you can legally build.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Like contractor grade, or what do they call it? When you buy a home and they offer you contractor grade. Do you want that, or that’s the basic.

Katherine Hammack: Yeah, it’s the lowest quality you can possibly build. And so going above and beyond. And sometimes, they’re called stretch code. So one of the stretch codes is the International Green Construction Code which tells you how you can go above and beyond your basic construction code. And the IGCC has strategies that many communities adopt either partially or in whole that helped them. When you say build back better, it helps them build back better because it goes beyond that legal minimum standard. And so I always like to say committed just when they say, what more can I do? I point them to the IGCC. That’s what more you can do. That’s how you can go above and beyond your basic building code. And for wildfires, there’s the, going to look right now, I think it’s called the International Wildland Interface, Urban Wildland Interface.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: We call it the WUI, Wildland Urban Interface. Never heard of before 2017. And I live right in the middle of it, for the record.

Katherine Hammack: There was a new update to the standard 2021 that really takes into account some of the lessons learned, some of the ember things that you’ve talked about. It really is a great tool for communities that want to define how to build back better. And the people in the community quite often don’t have the resources to research and do it themselves, do it alone. Instead of doing it alone, some of these codes and standards, whether you adopt PEER for your power grids, or LEED for your buildings, or the WUI code for your wildfire protection, or the IGCC for your construction, all of those are tools that are available to build back better.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think one of the things that I know, one of the things that we run into often, and I don’t expect you to have a perfect answer for this, but I have to bring this point into the podcast, it’s more expensive to do, it just is. For now, it is. And I keep mentioning that because we deal with a lot of wildfire survivors who’ve lost everything, when they look at their insurance, they’re dramatically underinsured. Which means that they’re also often using their contents. And even then, they might have to take out a second mortgage that there’s a lot of, when we sit down with our insurance and we look at it, we think about, well, how much would I sell my home for? Well, how much you would sell your home for is not necessarily at all what it would cost to rebuild it. And so it’s a thing, it’s something we run into in these fire affected communities all the time, it’s the dramatic number of people who are under insured. And so does building back with LEED certification, does that help your insurance? Does it affect it whatsoever is that outside of your scope?


“Should we have to wait for a disaster to do what we know is right to do? We have the tools to know what right looks like. We have the tools to know what resilient looks like.” -Katherine Hammack


Katherine Hammack: It’s a little outside of my scope. But I have heard that there are insurance agencies that are looking at this. They’re looking at the LEED for cities program to reduce the insurance costs the city may have and to increase your bond ratings, which is another thing that cities are looking at. There have been some of these IGCC codes or other codes and standards that when you report them to the insurance company give you insurance discounts. So there is that, but should we have to wait for a disaster to do what we know is right to do? We have the tools to know what right looks like. We have the tools to know what resilient looks like. And so if you’re choosing to live at the edge of a wildland, if you’re choosing to live in an area that has turned a nose, if you’re choosing to live in an area subject to hurricanes, then you need to have a building that can withstand the risks that you’re going to be subjected to. We shouldn’t have to wait for Superstorm Sandy to say, oops, I guess we should have done it right to begin with. Because the cost of building back is higher than the cost of doing it right in the beginning.


“The cost of building back is higher than the cost of doing it right in the beginning.” -Katherine Hammack


Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think one of the things that we’re hoping for is like a sweet spot like where, yes, it’s true that there are people who choose to live on the edge or inside of the WUI or on the edge of the forest. And we, of course, you see that all the time. It’s not a vacation home. Second homes often live and recreate are often in recreation based areas, which are often in the woods. But they also live alongside people who’ve been there for many generations and often don’t even have mortgages, because it’s multi generational. But at the same time, these are not people who are wealthy. These are people who maybe are getting by on $25,000 a year, and they’re doing fine because they don’t have a mortgage. We saw that in like the Caldor Fire, there are 70% of the people whose homes burned down are uninsured, not under but uninsured because they couldn’t afford the insurance. I would hope the insurance industry will start to look at how can we actually work with LEED, work with, see if I can get it right for the first time, GBCI to see, that took me like seven times, to find an incentive wade for people who already have homes that are already in the WUI that are attached to the land as well. How do we make them more resilient in a way that’s also cost effective and ultimately might save the insurance industry money on the back end? I feel like there has to be a layer of some kind of Venn Diagram where we can find a sweet spot where they can use all of the wonderful knowledge that you bring to the table with the reality of why a lot of people live in the WUI, which has to do with, there’s naturally occurring affordable housing in the WUI everywhere.


“It’s not all about new construction. We always like to think new construction is easy, but how you maintain and operate your existing buildings is important.” -Katherine Hammack


Katherine Hammack: There is. Some of this has to do with operation and maintenance. It’s not all about new construction. And so if you have an existing building, like we talked about, clean your gutters, that’s a simple start. Clear the area around the building from brush, from overhanging trees and branches, you can reduce the opportunity for the fire or the embers to grab hold. And there’s a lot of information out there on how to increase the resilience of your existing buildings and properties. So it’s not all about new construction. We always like to think new constructions are easy, but how you maintain and operate your existing building is important.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: That is so true. And before we actually turn to some of our other bigger questions about disaster, I do want to note that if you can’t afford $5,000 for vulcan vents for your home, what you can do is you can actually fashion something that you could put up that’s temporary in a red, what I want to say, Red Alert for wildfire. Sorry, I have a little bit of a allergy thing going on today, makes me a little bit stupid. But there are things that you can fashion and things that are very analog and not expensive. But you’re absolutely correct. But whenever possible, and however possible, it’d be good to have our next generation of homes really follow along the standards that you’re talking to as well as our energy grids because clearly energy and how we deliver energy is definitely contributing to the rate at which we’re burning down. So one of things I’d like to do is quickly take a commercial break to listen to our sponsors, and we will be right back with Katherine Hammack. Thank you.

And we are back. Thank you so much for joining us. Once again, my guest on the How to Disaster Podcast is Katherine Hammack. And our next question is to talk to us about how your programs like LEED and Peer play a role in rebuilding communities after a disaster.

Katherine Hammack: We hate to say that you have to have a disaster to build. You and I were just talking about that. The three main things I mentioned before, site selection really take a hard look at the site. Should you be rebuilding back in the same site in exactly the same manner? I mean, you need to assess things like dealing with rainwater. Is the hydrology appropriate for building back or were you just flooded out and washed everything away? And if that’s going to be the way of the future, maybe there’s a different way to build the vegetation, the soils. The assessment of the site should take into all of those into account all of those things to determine where to build. And should you build back in the same site in the same way? We talked about stronger buildings. And what’s fascinating to me is to look at some of these older buildings, the oldest building in the United States with LEED certification was built in 1807.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Wow.

Katherine Hammack: And it’s gone through many renovations since it started as a private residence. One of those really monstrous ones, but it served as the first permanent building for Radcliffe College, and it was one of those early education institutions for women as part of the historic Seven Sisters Colleges in the Northeast. So think about how buildings were built back then. We built with thermal mass, we built with stone rebuilt with thick wood, we built them to last without electricity because you didn’t have electricity. So some of those durability kinds of things are really coming back, I will say in fashion, because people are recognizing it. It’s called Passive House, and passive house where you can build something that does not need electricity to operate. And so it operates passively to provide you the comfort that you need in all seasons. So stronger buildings are something. And then we talked about the power infrastructure. In my own house, I have solar on the roof, battery storage, and an electric vehicle. And when I generate more electricity than I need, I bank it on the power grid. And when I have an overcast day, like today’s a little overcast, I withdraw that power and use it. And so I’ve made enough energy to essentially operate for a year on energy that I have produced or produced in (inaudible). And so when you think about your power infrastructure that also helps you in disasters, whether you’re talking about an individual house or even a community, micro grids or something we’re seeing. I’m fascinated with micro grids because a micro grid has both power generation, power distribution and quite often energy storage. They are on site so it can connect and disconnect from the main power grid. The main kept power grid goes down, it can still operate and provide power to critical resources.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Now, it might surprise you, but there’s definitely people who will be in our audience who don’t actually know how the power is getting to them. Now, if you want to talk at all about how our power grid is actually very 19th century in many ways, or 20th century.

Katherine Hammack: When I talk about power grids, I like to talk about nano grids. Nano grids are like when you carry a battery with you to recharge your cell phone, that’s a nano grid. Your own power grid. Micro grid is the solar on my roof, and my energy storage, or sometimes they’re called mini grids. But when you get to one of these large micro grids, that’s a community where the power is produced, maybe it’s a large solar system, or a wind farm, or even some natural gas generation that generates power and can separate from the main power grid. One of the challenges with the main power grid is you have power produced at a central location. And quite often, it’s due to a combustion process through whether it’s coal or natural gas, and then power is generated there, and then it’s delivered over transmission lines, and then distribution lines many, many miles. And I’d like to think of two different kinds of power grids. One of them I think of as a spider where you’ve got your power generation in the middle, and your power lines go out in a radial fashion. So if you’re at the very end of the power grid and anything happens upstream, you’re out of power, a micro grid quite often is a series of loops so that you can be fed from two different directions. Maybe two different power plants even. So if something goes down, they reroute the power and isolate that segment that has gone down so a lot of people are still able to have power. So I think the future of utilities is a series of networked microgrids that connect and disconnect, and we’re seeing this popping up around the world. We’re seeing it a lot in California where there’s a lot of talk about micro grids, and several of them have been functioning really well.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: We love a micro grid here, the idea of it. Because starting about three years ago, we started having public safety power shut offs. And so I remember the first year that they instituted them, we lost power for days, six times, and with the longest was also six days. And so it’s easy to remember, but the minimum was 48 hours up to six days, and you feel you’re feeling pretty good, like you can totally do the group project. But about day three, it starts to get a little cranky. And it was amazing to me how many people learned at that time how a power grid even works. Or the fact they’d be like, why are they turning off my power when it’s totally red, there’s barely any wind on the valley floor. I live in a valley, I live in Sonoma Valley, but up on the hills where their power is actually coming from their 90 mile an hour winds. But if they can’t see it or feel it, it is very frustrating for a lot of people. And it definitely wasn’t resilient and certainly wasn’t sustainable. And so I’m looking forward to having more micro grids. There’s also the added bonus to have like what you’re doing with your solar, with your nano grid. I have not heard that before so I’m going to adopt that from here on out. So thank you so much for that. But you’re also, we have such a dependence on fossil fuels. And clearly, we have to move away from that. There’s no question. I mean, some people want to stay in the 1800s, I just happen not to be one of them. But you are not only producing your own energy through renewable resources, but you’re also making sure that your car is not running on the same fossil fuels. So I just want to–


“Change your habits to accommodate the power.” -Katherine Hammack


Katherine Hammack: I have a plug-in electric vehicle. So I run my car off of solar too. But when you generate your own power, you have to think about using your appliances that use a lot of energy at the time you’re producing most power. So a lot of times, your utility rates will tell you, she power is after 9:00 o’clock at night, and expensive power is in the middle of the day. Yet, if I’m generating my energy from solar, I have lots of power during the day. So that’s when I want to run my dishwasher, and my clothes washer, and dryer, and my heavy use appliances. Whereas at night, I want to minimize my use of electricity because I’m then living off my battery. And so I’ve got battery storage in the garage. And so I can run things still, but I tried to really minimize it. So you change your habits to accommodate the power. And the other thing to think about, again, I said a lot of our power comes from coal. Still in the United States is about 30%. We’re over 40% natural gas, we’re about 10% nuclear, and the balance is a combination of hydro and utility. And those are very rough numbers, but hydro and renewable energy. So when you think about your power, the dirtiest power is at night because that’s when your coal plants are running. During the day, that’s when you’ve got a lot of your solar and your natural gas. And they call them natural gas peaking plants, but that’s still fossil fuel. So you sort of want to run your appliances, and we’re working with a lot of utilities on how to decarbonize the power grid, and how to decarbonize the environment, especially the building sector because we’re very concerned about climate change.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think one of the hard things in this space of climate change is that we viewed it as such a long game for so long. And until we’ve had so many recurrent and frequent natural disasters, which we now are seeing off season. I mean, the fact that last night, New Orleans had two tornadoes, and March is totally bizarre that we’re attending a fire, wildfire that erupted in Boulder County in Colorado. The Marshall Fire on December 30, like these are not naturally occurring seasonal things anymore. We’re all vulnerable all the time. So all of a sudden, it felt like more of a long game no longer feels that way. So I am somewhat hopeful that we will make much faster changes. Do you see a faster change in the horizon? Or do you think people will continue sort of in the same vein?

Katherine Hammack: Yeah. The question is, what motivates people to do something different? And we are quite often motivated financially. And like you said earlier, how can you get people to build back better? Or their grants, or their loans, are there incentive structures? And certainly, with some of the new policies that we’re seeing coming out of Congress, there is money to build back a better power grid. And a better power grid quite often has undergrounded cables so they’re not subject to wind, or fire, or some of those challenges. But it’s expensive. It’s about a million dollars a mile to bury a power grid, and you have to have the land rights to do so. So it can be costly, it can be expensive, but it’s also what we are doing. What are our personal habits? I think individuals can make a difference. How and when are you using energy? 


“We can all do our part— even little contributions. Think through your habits and what you can do.” -Katherine Hammack


I have no lights on in my house right now. Yes, I’m using my computer. But I have no lights on because there’s enough light coming in from outside. So think about the things you do. It’s like your mom said, don’t leave the door open, and don’t stand in front of the refrigerator with it open. Common sense kinds of things. LED lights. Turning off your lights when you leave a room. All of these things add up. They add up personally to your finances, but they benefit the community and the environment as a whole. And yes, I put on solar, but I also chose a house that had a south facing roof, south sloping roof so it made it easier to add solar. And so I think we can all do our part even with little contributions. Yeah, someone was talking about driving and grouping your errands together. Don’t make five trips a day, make one trip a day and make three stops on that trip. Just sort of think through your habits and what you can do. Cleaning your gutters as a simple thing, trimming your bushes outside against wildfire, if that’s your threat. But know your threats. Know your threats, know your risks, and then adapt to them, and design what you can.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think I just really want to put a pin in the word adapt. This time does require that all of us adapt, and that we also take some personal responsibility and how to be safer, and how to keep our neighborhoods and our communities safer and take some responsibility. I was on a call earlier today where one of the things we were talking about is how important it is to make sure that you haven’t have to sustain your household before between three and seven days because you can’t expect the government just to come in and to take care of you for those period of time, especially when we have so many disasters occurring. So often, there is no magical cavalry out there that does not exist. We are responsible. Can you talk to us a little bit about how your work has maybe changed over the past four to five years since the advent of this era of megafire.


“The materials, the construction styles, and the landscaping are changing as we’re having to adapt to the increasing number of disasters that we’re seeing.” -Katherine Hammack


Katherine Hammack: I think one of the things that has changed is really that focus on materials, what are you doing in construction. But then I had a call the other day, looking at landscaping, and that landscaping is changing because the plants that you’re used to seeing are not surviving the climate change. If your plant is not surviving, then it’s dying. And then it’s getting dry and brittle, and it becomes fuel for the fire. So we need to think about changing our landscaping, changing the materials we use and building more with more resilient materials. That’s why, and again, I don’t work for these guys. I’m just intrigued that someone came up with this idea. Because if you think of it, when you cross materials together, they get stronger. And you take weak materials, you put them together to make them stronger. And now, you have better resilience against earthquakes, you have better resilience against fire, you have less materials in construction, and then you have less waste because you can do it at a factory. And so I think we’re also seeing some of these factory built construction projects. I’m seeing this in commercial construction where they build segments or huge portions in a factory, and then they erect them on site, and that reduces costs. But also in a factory, you’re able to put in the better insulation, use stronger materials and increase your resiliency that way. So I guess that’s what we’re seeing is the materials, the construction styles and the landscaping that’s really changing as we’re having to adapt to the increasing number of disasters that we’re seeing.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: That is such good information. But it’s also just good for our audience to hear that their great minds and hearts are actually working on this problem, working to get us to the other side, we are not just at the mercy of what’s happening to us. We can actually adapt, change and be more sustainable, and be more resilient, especially as we define exactly what that means. And that’s one of the things that I liked at the outset of this podcast is that you gave a specific example of what those terms actually mean, because they are used so often. But really, part of that is about you do have agency in your own resiliency and your own sustainability. And we know that the ongoing problem of cost, that’s not going to change. What we can do is actually look at it realistically and figure out how to bring the cost down. And the more of us that take part in that, then the more those costs come down naturally. That’s  just basic capitalism 101. Is there anything that you wish I would have asked you on this podcast that I haven’t gotten to yet because your knowledge base is so wide that I could go on for hours, but we don’t.


“The level of preparation for natural disasters is fundamentally a personal decision or a business decision.” -Katherine Hammack


Katherine Hammack: Really, the level of preparation for natural disasters is fundamentally a personal decision or a business decision. It’s an owner’s decision. We see some of these lessons learned from disasters like Superstorm Sandy that still aren’t widely implemented. Yet, one of the lessons learned was, if you’re in an area that’s susceptible to flooding, don’t have your mechanical system in a sub basement.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Oh, never heard that before.

Katherine Hammack: Elevate your equipment. And even just like in a commercial building, put your equipment on the second floor, not the first floor, not the ground floor, not the sub basement. Elevate your mechanical equipment because then it’s going to survive a flood and you won’t have to replace it. And frankly, doing that when you’re building a building or renovating a building, it’s an easy thing to do. Another thing was quick connections, which was surprising. But if your building loses power and you don’t have backup power, you want to bring in a generator. How can you plug that generator into the building? Well, you can design that really easily. Even for a house, you can design that in the beginning. But if it’s an emergency situation and you now need a generator, an emergency situation, you essentially have to rip out the electrical panel to hardwire in your generator whereas a quick connection would allow you to plug it in. And that was one of the lessons learned is that they couldn’t plug in the generators that brought a generator to a site. And now, you need an electrician to go through and figure out how to redo the wiring, flood barriers, even temporary sidewalk barriers can protect against floods, and then the sewage backflow valves. So sewage valves are valves that prevent sewage backflow into basements during rain flow and floods. It’s just a backflow valve, a simple valve to put in. But if the sewage system backs up because there’s a lot of rain water and you don’t have one, then you’re gonna have your building flooded with sewage, and then that’s a pain to clean up. 


“Doing it now at your leisure is much better than doing it at haste during an emergency.” -Katherine Hammack


So some of these are very simple kinds of things to do that you can budget for, or I will say at your leisure in preparation for a flood. But it’s a business decision. It’s a risk analysis. And I think each of us need to do that personally. Whether it’s keeping seven days of food on hand to make sure that you can feed yourself. Or business wise, what do you need to keep your business operating? If you were to lose power, if there were to be a flood, how can you maintain your business operations? How can gas stations continue to pump gas? Or how can you recharge your electric vehicle if the power system goes down? There’s a lot of these things that you need to do that risk analysis and really think through where you’re vulnerable. And what can you do now? And doing it now at your leisure is much better than doing it in haste during an emergency.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think those are great points because something that is simple to do ahead of time. If you’re trying to find a plumber, or trying to find an electrician, or trying to find that person in the midst of a disaster, so everyone else’s too. And just supply and demand, you’re not likely to have it and it becomes so much more complicated. So I really appreciate that. It’s kind of like a seatbelt before versus a seatbelt after. I really appreciate that. Can you please tell our audience where they can find out more and when they can find you?

Katherine Hammack: Certainly. If you want information on the PEER system for power grids, for resilient and reliable power grids, it’s here at Or if you’re interested in LEED, L-E-E-D, you can just punch LEED into your search engine, and you’ll come up with more resources than you ever imagined.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, I just really want to thank you for bringing this, bring all your knowledge and your experience to this podcast because we are called How to Disaster, but in our perfect world, we wouldn’t get to the point of disaster. And so this would be like, how to prepare for the disaster isn’t so terrible, so impactful. I’m so glad that people like you have their minds and hearts that are totally leaning into before the fire issue, before the flood, because that’s really how we’re all going to make it through. So thank you again, Katherine, for being on the podcast.

Katherine Hammack: Thank you. My pleasure. Thank you. susta

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