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Climate Resilience in 5 Steps

Aug. 25, 2016

Can your building handle climate-related emergencies?

How well would your building stand up against a heat wave or a storm? Before you answer with your building’s specs, remember that they’re based on historic conditions – and your building will be subject to storms that are more intense and frequent than your design and equipment probably take into account.

 “Our buildings were essentially designed looking through the rearview mirror of the car as we’re driving down the road,” explains Chris Pyke, Chief Operating Officer for GRESB (Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark, a consultancy that specializes in assessing environmental, social and governance policies) and co-author of the USGBC report Green Building and Climate Resilience. “The conditions our buildings are being operated in are out in front of us. We design our buildings to operate under conditions that happened 30 to 40 years ago, yet because we know the climate is changing, the conditions our buildings will experience in terms of temperature, precipitation, and other extreme events are not the conditions we assumed when we designed them.”

As climate-related emergencies become more intense and frequent – bringing longer and deeper rainfall, stronger wind, or harsher temperatures – it’s up to facilities managers to make sure they’re prepared for the worst.

The Unique Challenges of Climate Resilience

Determining whether your facility is ready to meet the challenges of climate emergencies isn’t easy. In part, that’s because readiness is a moving goalpost, explains George D. Sullivan, Senior Principal and CEO of the Net Zero Analysis and Design Corporation, a clean technology firm specializing in reducing energy consumption and recycling waste energy.

“On the Gulf Coast, when the last major storms came through there was nothing left of these buildings that were certified as resilient. The storms are getting more intense, so you might design a building for 150 mph winds, but if a Category 5 hurricane that tops out at 275 mph comes through, your building is gone,” Sullivan says. “Climate disasters are something we’re not going to be able to build our way out of. To build your way into resilience, you’d have to tear down all the buildings in the U.S. and put them back up again.”

How Climate Change Could Impact Your Building

Landscapes Plant hardiness zones will change due to increasing temperatures, more intense and frequent heat and precipitation, and longer periods between storms. Consider evolving precipitation patterns, length of seasons and average ambient temperature in landscape design. Your landscaping choices are also crucial to helping manage stormwater runoff for your site and neighborhood, so select design and plant species wisely.

Consumption of water will increase as average temperatures rise, extreme heat events become more frequent and intense, and droughts last longer. If regional stream patterns change as projected, water availability will become more unpredictable, contributing to longer droughts. Focus on reducing your building’s water consumption to balance the growth in demand with a supply that is projected to shrink.

Harsher storms that occur more frequently increase runoff as site and neighborhood stormwater management systems are overwhelmed. Buildings are at risk of stormwater damage and localized flooding.

Cooling degree days will increase along with average temperatures. Winter heating demand will decrease slightly, but not enough to offset the predicted increase in cooling energy demand.

However, your envelope and systems influence how much more cooling energy you’ll need. Consider high albedo roofs, green roofs and enhanced envelope strategies the next time you need to replace your roof or tighten up your envelope, as well as HVAC design that allows for expansion when current cooling capacity is no longer sufficient.

Indoor Environmental Quality:
If both daytime and nighttime temperatures rise, natural ventilation will be much less effective for cooling indoor air. Ground-level ozone concentrations are also likely to rise, posing risks to human health and further impacting the viability of natural ventilation. Energy-saving measures like night cooling will be less reliable.

Building Materials
Look for durable, well-tested building materials that can stand up to more frequent and intense storms, increased flooding and changes in regional pests. Wind-driven water and roofing performance are the top threats to building materials, according to a report produced after Hurricane Ike, requiring smart roofing and envelope strategies.

Increased Flood Risk
Flooding is greatly impacted by neighborhood patterns, but your building material choices can help mitigate your flood risk as well. Look for materials that are more durable and water-resistant, less susceptible to water intrusion, and relatively inexpensive and easy to replace if your building does flood.

PESTS Termites are expected to expand their range as temperatures increases, especially if winter seasons shorten as anticipated because ground freezing helps keep termite populations down. Buildings in regions with limited termite populations may become more vulnerable to the pests as the climate grows warmer, so consider possible damage to wood-based building materials and furnishings.

This is particularly true as the geography of climate emergencies continues to shift, says Robin Guenther, Principal of Perkins+Will, a design firm that contributed the healthcare resilience section of the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit at toolkit.climate.gov. Hurricane Sandy, a Category 3 storm that reached 115 mph, became the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history in part because it reached so far up the East Coast. It’s one thing to prepare for more frequent or intense versions of storms that are common in your region – it’s another to prepare for new ones. “The intensity of a Sandy has not really come that far north before, so New York didn’t have infrastructure prepared for a 1,000-year event,” Guenther adds.

More frequent emergencies that hit harder and reach into cities that may not be prepared for them means facility emergency plans must evolve along with the changing climate.

It’s not just about shoring up your building’s physical strength, it’s also about planning for the inevitable cleanup and ensuring business continuity in the interim.

“Hospitals are generally prepared for 96 hours of disruption to utilities because in general, the emergencies that have happened to them so far have been solvable in 96 hours,” explains Guenther. “There are two kinds of problems that climate change creates. There are shocks to the system, which are huge events that happen but then are over, but there are also stressors that strain resources and health over a longer term, like heat waves. If New York experiences 60 days above 90 degrees F. when we used to have 10 days above 90, that’s a stressor. For a hospital, that means more people have breathing problems, more people have heart failure, and more people need cooling centers.  Emergency preparation is not organized to deal with the long-term stressors that climate change introduces.”

1) Understand Your Risks

How can an FM hit this moving target? Start by gaining a solid understanding of the risks your building faces, both in the short term and long term. The U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit is a good place to start. Sources like the National Weather Service, NOAA and the National Climate Assessment will provide some answers on
regional weather risks, suggests Pyke.

Your building’s construction also impacts your unique risks, Pyke continues. Green buildings often take the form of a “well-insulated, well-sealed glass box, which is quite energy-efficient in the short run,” Pyke explains. “But from a resilience perspective, in the event of a power outage, that glass box is going to become uninhabitable much faster than a naturally ventilated building where you can open the windows. Our efforts to be more energy-efficient alone without conditions for resilience may actually make us less resilient.”
In your initial assessment of your climate-related risks, also consider local infrastructure, Guenther suggests.

“The hospitals that were built in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina were all predicated on the idea that the levees would hold, so when they didn’t hold, the hospitals flooded and were wrecked. When they were rebuilt, they were all designed as if the levees won’t hold,” Guenther says. “A lot of building owners don’t know what their risk is upstream. Try to project what will happen if all of that infrastructure doesn’t work. What are the real flood levels my building could be at, not just the artificial one based on the infrastructure working? What would the water level be if the dam broke?”

2) Enlist Help from Other Departments

The facilities department can’t plan for climate resilience alone, so it’s important to enlist allies from the right departments. Other key players include capital planning and insurance executives, as well as the person responsible for tenant relationships in leased buildings, Pyke says.

“Capital planning needs to be involved in terms of the interplay between what the facility needs and where you are in the capital cycle for any asset, as well as thinking about value protection,” Pyke adds. “Insurers are looking at non-stationary risk – the future is different from the past. By preparing for these risks, can your organization receive discounts on insurance coverage? Maintaining continuity of operations is going to be an attractive feature to certain types of tenants, so can your tenant relationship staff sell that as a value point?”

If your organization has a separate department for sustainability, bring them onboard as well – there’s considerable overlap between green building strategies and resilience strategies, Pyke says. Critical buildings like healthcare facilities should also bring clinical leadership on board to determine projected health needs associated with various climate impacts, then work to reduce climate stressors in their communities, Guenther adds.

3) Determine Continuity Requirements

Ideally, your facility won’t have to keep its doors shut for long after an emergency, but a severe storm or a widespread power outage could throw a wrench into those plans.

Figure out your facility’s continuity requirements, then work backwards to determine how to get there. A hospital needs to stay open through an event or reopen immediately after, Guenther explains, whereas a medical office building might aim to reopen within 96 hours to account for disrupted roads and damage preventing people from getting to work.

“The climate toolkit asks questions to help facilities managers be more intentional and to really think about what it means to design a facility that’s capable of reopening within 96 hours,” Guenther says. “What does it need to have? If you’re in a flood plain and you need to reopen within 96 hours, make sure that all your building materials are capable of getting wet, drying out and being OK afterward. Tile floors and walls mean you can go in with a cleaning crew, clean it out and reopen. But if you have drywall and carpet, you’re not going to reopen in 96 hours – that’s a one-month refurbishment where you’ll be cutting out the drywall and changing the flooring.”

Take into account how losing power or water, being subjected to extreme heat or cold, or other region-specific risks could affect your building and your organization’s ability to function.

“Do you understand how your chillers and air conditioning units are going to perform at higher temperatures?” Pyke asks. “One thing we’ve seen in recent heat waves has been higher nighttime temperatures, so buildings don’t have a chance to cool off at night. We have thermal buildup day after day, and after 5 to 10 days, we’ve overwhelmed our cooling capacity and can’t cool off the building. Do you have an operating plan for introducing additional forms of cooling?”

4) Assess Existing Infrastructure

Develop a rubric to determine how your building’s physical infrastructure will hold up against various climate risks. If your facility is required to conduct a hazard vulnerability analysis, the information you gather for that process can aid your resilience planning. You can also work through the steps in the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit, which includes a healthcare-specific checklist as well as a spreadsheet for all building types.

Insurance providers can likely help with this part of the process – ask them to conduct a comprehensive policy review to see what your insurance covers and react accordingly. For example, lightning strikes may not be covered, so it might be worth the money to install lightning protection on your building, Sullivan suggests.

If you outsource any of your maintenance, bring in those contractors and ask them to develop a regular maintenance schedule for emergency systems if you don’t already have one. “If you’ve got a central system in the building, how often are you testing your sump pumps?” Sullivan asks. “They’ll give you a maintenance plan that you can develop with them so you can afford the work in your budget instead of waiting until it goes out and then trying to get it done.”

Understand the designed capacity of your building systems and determine what would happen if they were overworked, Pyke adds: “Your stormwater system may have been designed to accommodate a typical 25- to 50-year rain event. Now those events are going to be happening more frequently and at a greater severity. What happens when the system’s capacity is exceeded? What does the failure state look like? Does it fail gracefully by routing water out of the system or will water cascade through my garage and cause damage? What’s my contingency plan if the system fails?”

5) Develop a Plan of Action

Once you know your building’s unique combination of capability and vulnerability, it’s time to prepare for future emergencies. Address any identified areas where your building’s defenses against the elements are weak.

“Think critically about what infrastructure needs to keep working and how to harden or secure that infrastructure so it does,” says Guenther. “It’s about getting critical infrastructure out of harm’s way, whether that means above flood levels or into buildings that are more secure against high wind.”

Your post-assessment action should account for how you’ll communicate to occupants in the case of an outage, Sullivan says. Remember that not everyone has a laptop that can run off battery backup for a few hours – you may have to go door to door to reach everyone in an emergency. Your communication protocols should be added to an emergency planning packet to be distributed to each tenant if applicable, along with an escape plan and information on what to expect in the event of outages or emergencies.

Also encourage tenants to develop safety kits (or develop your own for owner-occupied buildings) that include backup water, flashlights, emergency numbers and other basics.
Long-term action includes keeping resilience in mind when replacing equipment that’s reaching the end of its useful life, Pyke says.

“On a capital cycle, am I installing a piece of pipe or a chiller with a 20-year performance guarantee based on historic data, or am I anticipating what’s going to happen over the next 10 to 25 years with my building? In those moments, the marginal cost of doing something a little more resilient might be low or zero. Those are windows of opportunity to make more resilient decisions. Other decisions, like adding shading structures, are going to be costly – they increase the passive energy efficiency of a building and add resilience, but they involve a specific cost that requires more consideration.”

Janelle Penny [email protected] is Senior Editor of BUILDINGS.

Resilience Resources

1. U.S. Climate Resistance Toolkit


Features five detailed steps and a free spreadsheet for resiliency planning, calculators and projections to help assess your own climate risks, links to training courses and more. For healthcare facilities, check out the included report, Primary Protection: Enhancing Health Care Resilience for a Changing Climate.

2. Green Building and Climate Resilience Report


Understand key risks by region and the likely consequences of climate change in the short, medium and long term. Recommended actions are split into no-regrets strategies (day-to-day resilience considerations that don’t require a significant investment) vs. resilient strategies (actions that require some investment but will significantly boost resilience).

3. National Climate Assessment


Learn more about your region’s risks and recommended resilience strategies. The detailed report covers every aspect of climate change that could affect your building, from transportation upsets that could prevent occupants from reaching your building to projected changes in cooling and heating demand.

4. Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety


Make sure your building is prepared for intense, frequent weather events, including severe storms and high winds. See how each storm type can impact your building and learn about ways to shore up your facility to resist the damage.

About the Author

Janelle Penny | Editor-in-Chief at BUILDINGS

Janelle Penny has been with BUILDINGS since 2010. She is a two-time FOLIO: Eddie award winner who aims to deliver practical, actionable content for building owners and facilities professionals.

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