climate change

Are condos prepared for climate change?

Statistics and case studies foreshadow the impacts that could come
Monday, June 22, 2020
By Rebecca Melnyk

In the coming wave of more intense weather events due to climate change, condo corporations in Ontario may be wondering how they can better adapt and if this is something they should even be considering in the near future. Climate experts say yes. Some are already persuading condos to outline plans if they haven’t done so already.

“We know climate change has happened, is happening and will continue to happen,” says Dr. Blair Feltmate, professor and head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo. “It is irreversible, and any condo corporation would be well advised to put measures in place to mitigate and anticipate extreme weather events.”

While many condos haven’t yet experienced major effects of increasing rainfall or prolonged heat waves, statistics and case studies foreshadow the impacts that could come.

From 1948, when nation-wide records became available, to 2016, the best estimate of Canada’s annual average temperature increased 1.7 C. This is twice the global average, according to Canada’s Changing Climate Report released last year. Higher temperatures will only become more persistent and intense, fueling the severity of heatwaves. Environment Canada estimates that by 2050, a summer temperature exceeding 30 C in southern Canada will be four times more frequent than today.

“The overall temperature is going up and that certainly is an issue that has impact over decades, not years,” says Dr. Jeffrey Siegel, professor of civil and mineral engineering at the University of Toronto. “What does have an impact in the short term are extended heat waves.”

He says condos are perhaps better protected because of air conditioning, but there are costs associated with that, along with stress on the electrical grid, which leads to more outdoor air pollution. There is also the issue of “equity in society.” Older people (many who have downsized to condos) and persons with disabilities often face more challenges during power outages and longer-lasting bursts of high temperatures.

Precipitation patterns will also change. With warmer climates come more intense flooding due to increased rainfall. The annual average precipitation for 2031 to 2050 is expected to jump 5.3 to 6.6. per cent, depending on the amount of human emissions of carbon dioxide.

“Any condo corporation would be well advised to put measures in place to mitigate and anticipate extreme weather events.”

Flood risk maps are currently being updated as of this year, with more maps coming by 2022. The goal is to understand where surges of storm water travel to, stemming from the overflow of river banks to sewer systems back-ups that flood parking garages and basements. According to Feltmate, the Weston area of Toronto, along with London and Windsor are at higher risk, but doesn’t mean other locations are out of harm’s way, given the increasing prevalence of microburst storms.

“We’re now seeing deluages of rain pour down over short periods of time that render any area vulnerable to flooding,” he says. “Condos should assume they are subject to risk, and if they haven’t had a history of flooding, that doesn’t mean much. The weather of the past is not a very good predictor of weather of the future due to climate change.”

Take for instance the Burlington storm in 2014 where 192 mm of rain fell over the course of six to eight hours, flooding 3,500 homes, including condos. Or, more recently, the flash flood in Toronto in 2018, where 100 millimetres of rain fell in less than two hours in some parts of the city. Two individuals, trapped in an elevator of a commercial tower, almost drowned on the basement level. Increasing storms like this combined with the city’s aging sewer system are predicted to result in more flood events.

Issues indirectly related to climate may also be a cause for concern, like pest activity and indoor air quality. Dr. Sepitah Pakpour, assistant professor at the School of Engineering at UBC, unveiled research last year showing more rain events are causing fungal mould to grow faster, degrading the mechanical properties of buildings and creating health hazards for people who live in them. Meanwhile, Alice Sinia quality assurance manager at Orkin Canada, also says that not only fungi and mould, but also carpenter ants, ground beetles and rodents proliferate after floods. A combination of more rainstorms and higher temperatures creates an ideal habitat for midges, a pest vexing some condo dwellers in Toronto. They tend to flock to balconies, more-so by bodies of water. Meanwhile, Dr. Syed Sattar, professor emeritus of microbiology in the faculty of medicine at the University of Ottawa, says climate change may have some impact on viruses that insects like mosquitoes carry—West Nile being one. “Warmer temperatures will expand their geographic reach and also make them spread infections faster, he says.”

Murray Johnson, vice-president of client operations at Crossbridge Condominium Services, wonders if the effects of climate change could possibly turn manageable problems into mainstream issues.

“Right now, maintenance contracts for building systems like makeup air units are pretty standardized. When you put a building next to a construction site, you can’t wait a month to change filters; sometimes you have to change them weekly because you have dust and concrete. But I have no idea what will happen when we start to see the effects of climate change.”

Johnson is not only talking about particulate air, but increasing pest activity. “Condos have a small budget line of about $80 a month for pest control when we look at what climate change will do; that $80 per month could become $800 a month or more,” he says.

As extreme weather events increase, so do insurable losses. From 1983 to 2008, payouts from Canada’s property and casualty insurance sector tallied around $250 to $450 million annually. For ten of the past 11 years, losses have swelled to over $1 billion, for average annual claims of $1.8 billion. Although it’s unclear how much of this increase stems from condos, what is known is that flooding is the main cause of catastrophic insurable losses.

Climate change is also one factor causing premiums to rise across the country. The main culprit affecting condo premiums seems to be internal water damage from leaky pipes and sinks, says Peter Kennedy, senior vice-president and national director of the real estate practice for Aon in Canada. This is one of the major challenges in the condo insurance market now. In certain parts of the country, flood risk would be most relevant for condos situated in flood zones, he notes. Any preventative maintenance measures condos undertake to mitigate flood and water damage risk will save them from paying deductibles. It would also save condos from experiencing claims that would go on their loss record, which plays a big role in determining their premiums.

“Look at your landscaping—which way the pavement runs, where your downspouts are and where are they taking the water when it rains. Make sure the drains aren’t clogged, the windows don’t leak and roofs are in good condition,” Kennedy says. “All this stuff is just basically really good maintenance and good risk management to prevent losses.”

Mitigation also reflects ‘prudent ownership,’ Feltmate adds. “Avoiding flood risk is desirable, not only from the perspective of insurance, but also not to stigmatize a property as flood prone, which in turn would affect property value.”

To manage an unpredictable climate, industry members are promoting good old planning and procedures, as researchers explore how technology can help to some degree.

When it comes to heat waves, Natalia Moudrak, director of climate resilience at the Intact Centre, says designated cooling spaces within a condo serve as a refuge for residents should a power outage occur. Summer days in cities can feel almost 1 to 3 C warmer than their surroundings and as much as 12 C warmer in the evening due to urban heat island effect. High humidity can make the temperatures feel even more suffocating. Cities are implementing green and reflective roofs to help ward off the heat, but a “check-in-on-your-neighbour” program is an immediate step, she adds— many residents might live without a strong social network.

Easy and affordable actions buildings can take to abate flood risk are outlined in Ahead of the Storm, a report Moudrak co-authored with Feltmate last year. For example, water sensors that automatically prevent elevators from proceeding to flood-inundated levels when water is detected. Many condos are also investing in leak detection systems, both for external and internal water damage. Installing one is critical. “If it is cost prohibitive to do so for every condo unit, then at minimum, leak detection devices should be installed on the closed circuit system where water circulates through the building,” Moudrak notes. There are many on the market, but it’s best to install one that automatically shuts off water valves to minimize damage, as opposed to systems that only notify of a leak.

“The weather of the past is not a very good predictor of weather of the future due to climate change.”

Other actions include designating a space equipped with water, non-perishable food supplies and emergency kits, located above expected flood levels. Emergency preparedness and response plans should also be in place. They include having emergency response supply contracts and ensuring standing orders are ready with restoration and landscaping companies to provide goods and services at pre-arranged prices, under set terms and conditions. Contractors are often in high demand post flood. Due to much turnover with building staff, there should be regular training on flood event procedures and annual practice drills performed with residents.

Equipment and supplies should also be a priority the report states: assembling everything from portable lights to protective clothing and making sure onsite back-up generation equipment and fuel provide electrical power to at least one elevator, and many other building systems like fire alarms for 24 to 72 hours.

“These measures will probably have little to no impact on condo fees,” says Feltmate. “But if you have a major flood in a building, a percentage of which may well not be covered by insurance, then a special assessment will have to raise large sums of money to fix the problem that shouldn’t have happened in the first place.”

Another way to manage exposure from constantly evolving threats are regular, updated assessments of each property, according to Jim Mandeville, senior project manager, Large Loss North America, FirstOnSite.

“As flood maps and historical references for natural disasters are frequently being updated – and in some cases, turned on their head – agility and constant vigilance are keys to successful risk mitigation strategy,” he notes. “Honesty in these assessments is also important. We can all be guilty of relying on our past experiences to influence our decisions and views on the future. Considering the changes we’re seeing in weather patterns, the old models can no longer be trusted. Any sound strategy needs to be tested on the what if rather than the what we did before.”

More costly post-construction retrofits may be warranted for critical sites. For condos worried about overland flooding, portable flood barriers are said to be easier and quicker to implement and re-use, as opposed to sandbags that become contaminated with land-fill waste. Some products are said to cover five city blocks in 50 minutes.

“Hoping that climate change doesn’t occur, won’t help,” says Feltmate. “Given that it is irreversible, and knowing for certain that more extreme weather is on the way, it’s irresponsible for condo corporations not to prepare for floods and extreme heat.”

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