Scaling Building Resilience in the Face of Climate Change
Written by Verdani team members: Jessica Loeper, Kelly Hagarty and Daniele Horton. Edited by Adam Lindquist, Anne Shiraishi and Paulynn Cue
In 2017 the U.S. experienced devastating storms, fires, and hurricanes that caused over $358 Billion in damages. And for countries and communities around the world, they continue to be impacted by climate change as weather patterns become unpredictable.
With an upward trend of increased average global temperatures, the effects of climate change will continue to worsen and intensify. In addition to hurricanes, we have also seen many other climate related risks including longer fire seasons, accelerated rates of coastal erosion, higher intensity of storms, greater numbers of drought-prone areas, and increased river runoff, all of which pose a threat to water resources, biological systems, agriculture, and human health.
As scientists continue to predict stronger weather patterns, it is essential that we learn to adapt to this new climate. It’s time to think strategically about how our existing buildings and infrastructure needs to be renovated and new developments redesigned to incorporate resiliency strategies. We must become proactive instead of reactive.
Building Resilience Requires People to Think Regionally
Since each region poses different weather-related risks, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to climate change adaptation. To address these risks and increase building resilience, we must understand them from a regional perspective and devise adaptation strategies accordingly. Building resilience planning requires property owners and managers to adapt to the fixed, long-term nature of real estate assets and the ever-changing climate. This is done to safeguard assets against these extreme climate risks prone to the region and maintain building occupant safety. All to proactively mitigate the financial risk that extreme weather events can cause.
In addition, cities must also step up to ensure that energy, infrastructure, and transportation networks are fortified during more frequent and severe weather events. Partnerships between private and public sectors are key to ensuring that assets are protected and made resilient in the face of climate change and natural disasters.
While resiliency requires multi-stakeholder collaboration, there are many strategies that property owners and managers can consider when assessing a building’s vulnerabilities.
Resilience Strategies for New and Existing Buildings
Assess Vulnerability and Risk: Performing a risk assessment for existing buildings is an important first step of a resilience program because it helps owners to better understand their risks and develop a strategy to address them. The portfolio wide sustainability strategies we have helped our real estate clients implement also incorporates a Building Resilience and Climate Change Guide and a risk assessment analysis to be used for their existing assets as well as for new acquisitions.
Make a Plan: After determining the potential risks, it’s time to establish a plan that details the steps needed for a property to be prepared in the event of a disaster. First, evaluate the existing infrastructure and determine if there are changes that need to be made to ensure the building can withstand a disaster. The next step is to have a tangible action plan in place for all occupants to know what to do when a disaster strikes. Some cities have already created a resiliency plan. One example is the City of LA Resiliency Plan and Resiliency LA initiatives. Cities like Los Angeles have also added resiliency officers to help them prepare. These resources provide a well-rounded understanding of how cities and buildings can prepare for disaster. Verdani’s resiliency guide is geared towards recommended actions at a building level.
Optimize Building Structures and Sites: There are several crucial steps that can be taken to optimize sites and structures for extreme weather conditions. For areas with extreme heat, analyze the possibility of a white roof or installing vegetation on the roof. Implement a hazard resilient landscape design by growing plants with a large root system (trees, shrubs, native vegetation) that allow for water to percolate faster. Depending on the year of the building, it may be necessary to add extra insulation to ceilings, walls, and crawlspaces. Utilize materials that can withstand potential flooding and manage heat gains. Floodproofing your property is an instrumental aspect of scaling building resilience, especially for underground spaces.
Fortify Building Systems: Prioritize what critical systems need the most by running backups and conducting frequent tests to ensure the backup power systems can bear the load required in case of an emergency. Resilient heating, cooling and ventilation systems allow for cross ventilation for passive cooling if the equipment is no longer operating during a disaster. Ensure that there are building water reserves available if occupants must stay at the building but the water pipes are inoperable. Extend emergency lighting and services. In addition, keep generators or other back up power sources located on higher ground and away from flood-prone areas to ensure the units will remain operational when needed most.
Streamline Building Operations: The operational procedures of your properties are just as important for resilience during a disaster as the buildings, sites, and systems themselves. An emergency communications plan is vital. Print hard copies of tenant listings to assist in evacuation and outreach services before, during, and after disasters. Train building and facility teams to be prepared for emergency repairs. Keep the emergency plan readily accessible on the building’s website. See sample from City National Plaza, a Los Angeles property managed by CommonWealth Partners.
Protect People: Finally, your most valuable assets need their own comprehensive plan. During a heat wave, children and elderly are the most vulnerable demographics and are most in need of cool areas in the building. These areas should be run on a generator in the event of a power outage. Make time to meet with tenants to go over what potential needs they may have in case of an emergency and identify local shelters and other options available to assist them. It is important to also identify the most vulnerable building occupants and have a plan for them. As an example, during a black out in New York, some of the building occupants such as contracted janitorial staff that depended on public transportation were stranded at the property for five days. Since then, the building has made provisions for having cots on site and identified a location that occupants could sleep in the case of another power outage. It is also recommended to install outlet plugs in common areas that can be used by occupants and the community in case they need to power their cellphones to communicate with loved ones.
While it may seem like there are a lot of steps to take to be fully prepared for a natural disaster, it is in the best interest of property owners and tenants alike to be proactive and prepared rather than reactive in the face of an emergency.
Case Study with Parkway and Hurricane Harvey
The City of Houston is no stranger to hurricanes and flooding. Before Hurricane Harvey made landfall in 2017, Houston was also hit hard with flooding in 2001 by Tropical Storm Allison and again in 2008 by Hurricane Ike. Building owners across Houston learned hard lessons from those prior flooding events that helped inform their response to Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
In the case of Parkway, a client of Verdani since 2013 that owns several buildings in the Houston metro area, they had formalized a Building Resilience and Climate Change policy in previous years to help deal with climate related risks. The measures included in the policy involved plans for proactively preventing and mitigating damages from flooding and water damage caused by hurricanes and included 19 of their office buildings.
One proactive measure their building teams took was installing flood gates in low-lying areas across Parkway's entire Houston portfolio. After experiencing the previous storms and the damage it took on the buildings and city overall, they understood that the underground garages were susceptible to flooding. And as Hurricane Harvey engulfed the city, the flood gate features were put to good use. Along with the flood gates, the engineering team’s disaster prevention plans for Hurricane Harvey incorporated the widespread use of dewatering pumps in low-lying areas of the properties as well. The prevention plans also included 24/7 on-site maintenance staff for every building during the hurricane event itself. Having 24/7 staffing during Harvey's landfall proved to be a vital aspect of the plan because they were able to walk through every floor of each building multiple times each day to assess damages. Using this strategy, they were able to identify and fix minor problems in real time before they became major issues. They could quickly power down elevators or other critical building systems if necessary based on any rapidly changing conditions in the hurricane.
With the resiliency policy and precautionary measures in place, Parkway's Houston assets were fully prepared for the impending Hurricane Harvey. They were able to make it through Hurricane Harvey without any major damage to any of their office buildings and without any major flood insurance claims.
Climate change impacts will continue to increase demand for the adoption of resiliency, sustainability and energy efficiency initiatives. Investors and tenants are creating a greater push for more energy and water efficiency investments, climate change resilience preparedness, and workplace health safety and productivity. Many buildings and cities are implementing climate change and resilience adaptation policies to address climate change risks, infrastructure needs, and increased resources to meet the needs for water and energy as populations shift. Policy and regulation will continue to drive the building industry to address these issues and increase transparency for these topics. Successful leaders must stay in front of these trends and be proactive about what is important for building occupants.
Climate change is affecting everyone, and scaling resiliency strategies in the built environment is especially practical as we enter future hurricane and fire seasons to come.
Have Questions on How a Risk Assessment or Resiliency Plan Might Apply to You?
Verdani Partners has performed risk assessment and formalized resiliency plans for national portfolios and helped strategically prepare for the uncertainties posed by climate related risks. If there are questions you or your team have about creating a resiliency plan for a portfolio or property, please reach out to our team at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are happy to share our insights and discuss how a plan can help mitigate climate related risks for you.
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