Building sector brainstorms on extreme weather

BOMA discussion paper addresses commercial property and climate change adaptation
Tuesday, January 26, 2016
By Barbara Carss

Commercial real estate operators have a steadily accumulating inventory of lessons learned from extreme weather events, providing both motivation and insight to prepare for more climate volatility in the future. In Toronto, industry insiders are now pondering how to storm-proof business continuity, while brainstorming about the potential business spinoffs of a reputation for resilience.

The Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) of Greater Toronto is tackling the issue through a special sub-committee and a discussion paper, Commercial Property Resilience to Climate Change. Along with BOMA Canada and other stakeholders, it has also been active in several recent educational forums exploring various angles of climate change adaptation.

The discussion paper begins with the premise that a building’s key purpose is to enable occupants’ business operations, and then sets the scope for considering the factors — within the building, the affected region and the broader supply chain — that could influence how those businesses engage with their markets. This is much the same analytical framework that strategists around the globe use to predict and prepare for the social and economic fallout from cataclysmic events.

“If we think holistically about the consequences of an event, we actually get a better understanding of how to be resilient,” Alexander Hay, the discussion paper’s author, advised attendees at a BOMA Toronto seminar last fall.

Also serving as chair of BOMA Toronto’s sub-committee on extreme weather adaptation and resiliency, Hay brings recognized expertise as an engineer and consultant specializing in security and protection of critical infrastructure. His treatise outlines the underlying concepts of operational resilience and resilience planning, also mapping out scenarios for disruption and recovery of building functions and the various pressures that are likely to come into play.

“This paper is intended to stimulate an informed discussion on how BOMA members should make their properties future ready in a changing world,” Hay writes. “There is a lot to consider and perhaps befitting such a complex subject some of the concepts are not the easiest to digest at first reading.”

Sustainability overlap

Theory complements a perhaps more intuitive consensus among building owners/managers that guidance tools, operational contingencies and peer networks will be increasingly critical to respond to weather-related crises. The discussion paper is part of an initiative to define best practices for resilience that can be aligned with BOMA BEST’s performance assessment and continuous improvement model.

BOMA Toronto’s seminar exploring the relationship between building performance and climate change similarly focused on best practices. In keeping with the BOMA BEST agenda, some adaptation measures could first and foremost be seen as investment in sustainability and energy efficiency. As Hay noted, Passive House prescriptions for a heating demand load no greater than 15 kilowatt-hours per square metre also effectively insulate building occupants when there is no heat at all — making prolonged power outages more tolerable or, in the worst case scenario, survivable.

“We can introduce an awful lot of resiliency measures and save money in the process,” he asserted. “We can realize real savings in engineering, real savings in recovery and increase assurance of survival and continuity.”

Other expenditures — such as keeping a stockpile of sandbags easily at hand — fall into the low-cost/no-cost category. “Many of these are what I’d call ‘do anyway’ things because they have other benefits,” concurred David Macleod, senior environmental specialist with the city of Toronto’s environment and energy division.

Obligations and partnerships

“Nobody disputes the fact that the severity and frequency of events are increasing,” said Bala Gnanam, BOMA Toronto’s director of sustainable building operations and strategic partnerships. “When it comes to commercial real estate, our number one obligation is to make sure we serve our tenants. In extreme weather events, business continuity is a top need and priority.”

Eroding tolerance for business disruption translates into ever briefer grace periods for landlords before the expected full return of services and conditions required for tenant operations. “From the increasing trend in nuisance claims associated with climate change, it is anticipated that where there exists the perception or possibility that a property owner impeded an organization’s recovery, compensation will be demanded from the property owner,” BOMA’s discussion paper maintains.

Partnerships could position buildings to better respond. For example, emergency backup power has traditionally been viewed as a contingency that enables off-the-grid self-sufficiency, but required replenishments of fuel supply could be problematic during a lengthier outage due to transportation obstacles or because the fuel itself is requisitioned for higher-priority needs such as healthcare facilities. Alternatively, the discussion paper outlines a group approach to stretch resources.

“If the standby power provision for each operation is rated to provide up to 20 per cent more than needed, each partner can share with the other in the event of a standby failure,” it states. “This is more effective if each standby power source has a diversity of fuel supply.”

Municipal strategists are seeking to coordinate citywide responses to extreme weather in much the same way, with various essential sectors — such as utilities, food systems and buildings — playing a role. Obviously, buildings can and do provide literal shelter from the storm, and privately owned buildings could augment public space serving as emergency dormitories, cafeterias or warming/cooling centres. However, high-rise buildings quickly become uninhabitable without power for water pumps and elevators, which can further strain the city’s emergency response services.

Macleod emphasized the importance of identifying vulnerabilities and being prepared. “What I would like to propose is that BOMA is going to be the group that would be leading the buildings,” he suggested.

Centre of excellence

Toronto’s many natural advantages — with an elevation well above sea level, a location outside the traditional path of hurricanes and Lake Ontario’s abundant water supply and moderating effect on temperatures — already position it to attract and retain investors who see it as a stable locale on an increasingly volatile continent. Macleod next envisions a proactive approach to resilience and adaptation that could create professional opportunities in insurance/finance, engineering/design, construction and landscape architecture.

“In order to be resilient, we need to have people to work in the resiliency sector,” he reasoned. “If Toronto can be recognized as a resilient place to locate, we can also be a centre of excellence for people who do these things.”

Presumably, this burgeoning resiliency sector would need office space.

Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management.

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