Resilient buildings function through crises

Climate change adaptation increasingly on managers' agendas
Thursday, December 11, 2014
By Barbara Carss

The onset of winter and the approaching anniversary of the last year’s debilitating ice storm in southern Ontario heighten awareness of nature’s clout, spurring interest in the concept of resilient buildings. Across Canada, building owners and managers now contemplate increasing odds that they will have to respond to and recover from crises that can compromise operations, assets and/or their tenants’ safety, security and business continuity.

“When you look at the issue from a property owner’s perspective, it (resiliency) typically means: how can my business withstand the new climatic reality?” says Robert Tremblay, director of research with the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC). “We are looking at a 50-year event that is now happening on a five- to six-year cycle depending on where you are located. We have learned from a lot of events if you consider all the extreme rain events we have had in Canada in the past five years.”

An educational session at the Canada Green Building Council’s (CaGBC) annual national conference earlier this year tackled the topic of resiliency, tying it to sustainable design and features that enable buildings to function passively without power and retain or repel heat in contrast to outdoor conditions. Turning to existing buildings, concern focuses on retrofits, storm runoff controls, infrastructure capacity and risk mitigation through emissions reductions.

“Adaptation is actions to reduce vulnerability to climate change. Resiliency is what you get after you’ve adapted,” advises Michael Brooks, CEO of the Real Property Association of Canada (REALpac).

Preparedness and self-reliance
As with every other preparedness exercise, that entails risk assessment, planning, implementation of strategic measures, training and post-event evaluation that gets channelled back into the planning, implementation and training processes. Whether explicitly identified as resiliency building or simply seen as good management practices, many property managers are now considering recent experiences as they plan for the future.

Notably, the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) of Calgary hosted a special debriefing last year for members to discuss the challenges they faced during the massive flood of June 2013 that inundated lands adjoining the Bow and Elbow Rivers, including areas of the city’s downtown business core. Attendees compiled recommendations they could apply individually, as well as a list of projects for BOMA Calgary to lead on behalf of its members.

One such project and outcome is the new Flood Preparedness Guide for Building Owners and Managers, which still looks at more conventional sources of floods from burst pipes and broken water mains, while expanding the scope to include situations that caught some BOMA Calgary members off-guard last year.

Property managers in the Greater Toronto Area have likewise learned from unprecedented circumstances after two momentous storms within a six-month period. The first, in early July 2013, found Steve Weinrieb, senior property manager with Park Property Management, troubleshooting around flooded elevator pits with no power for sump pumps. Next, the late December ice storm brought a multi-day electricity outage in sync with the winter solstice.

Self-reliance was a defining theme of both events. Weinrieb reports long waits for municipal emergency services responders and a general lack of information about when power would be restored. Emergency services providers were pressed and preoccupied with higher ranking priorities in both the case of the July 2013 storm that dumped nearly 120 millimetres of rain in the span of a few hours, and the daylong drop of ice pellets that toppled branches and whole trees onto power lines and covered all exposed roads and walkways in a treacherously slippery coating.

“We have learned that we have to be ready ourselves because we are not going to get a lot of help. We set up a committee in our company and we looked at all of the issues that we encountered so we are better educated on what can happen and what resources we need,” Weinrieb says. “Everything that we were flying by the seat of our pants on last year, we have now clearly identified and addressed.”

Capital upgrades and design contingencies
The IBC urges a similar approach to capital planning. Climate-sensitive retrofit programs might include roofing upgrades to anticipate heavier snow loads, emergency generator installations in readiness for more frequent and lengthy power outages, and other investments and interventions to address heightened vulnerability to flooding. In New York City, for example, the experiences of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy have prompted some building owners/managers to install water-tight doors similar to those in submarines at grade and below-grade levels.

“We know that we are going to have more intensive rain precipitation so that also means in winter, it’s more snow,” Tremblay notes.

“It’s interesting to look at the output of climate modelling and compare the actual outcomes to what was projected,” he adds. “They are really, really close. If anything, climate models have underestimated what actually happened.”

Green building specialists urge designers and developers to think about how a building would function without power before incorporating the energy-driven technological add-ons. The building envelope plays a critical role in retaining or repelling heat in the absence of functioning HVAC systems, while low-rise construction and lower floors of high-rise buildings will have sufficient water pressure to deliver water without pumps. Overall, energy- and water-efficient design should be inherently less vulnerable when there’s no electricity to maintain indoor environmental conditions.

“Good passive, flexible design comes first. A resilient building can operate even when it fails,” Braden Kurczak, manager, business development, with the engineering and sustainable design firm, MMM Group, told CaGBC conference attendees. “Find ways to share energy from one room to the next. Ask: how comfortable is it to be there for a long time without power? How long do you want to be in a giant glass box that is going to heat up like a greenhouse?”

TD Bank Group embraced this philosophy in one its newest retail branches, which opened in Mississauga, Ont. last year and was conceived as a prototype for future green and resilient development. Premised on five principles — affordable, replicable, scaleable and quick construction to achieve LEED Gold certification — its designer reported impressive energy and water-use outcomes for the first six months of operation.

“Every element of the design is there for a purpose, but not just a single purpose, but for integrated multiple purposes,” explained CaGBC panellist, Gerry Faubert, managing principle of Integral Group.

“Resiliency is a big buzzword right now,” he reflected. “We are witnessing in our lifetimes a lot of things happening. I think the focus on resiliency is an opportunity for us to stop, wake up and do something about it.”

Easily assembled temporary buildings that can be literally dropped in to serve as outlets are another element of that strategy. Graham Takata, TD’s senior manager, energy and sustainability, recalled the success of this short-term emergency solution in the flood zone of High River, Alberta, when conventional branches were rendered physically inaccessible. Similarly, transportable so-called plug-and-play backup generators can restore power to branches, even on a rotating basis, to maximize the bank’s reach during a prolonged electricity outage.

“We think of banking as an essential service. People need to get cash for groceries and other necessities,” Takata said. “We want to think beyond the bricks and mortar to what it takes to restore that service to operation.”

That also ties into the broader definition of resiliency.

Threat assessment and acceptance
“From a security, life safety and even from a business perspective, I think the definition is a lot like the one in the dictionary. It means: nimble, adaptable, you are able to recover quickly,” says Brett Reddock, president of the security and emergency planning and preparedness consultancy, Unparalleled Technologies.

He sees an additional important influence — one that could give proponents of climate change adaptation something of an advantage in promoting the benefits of planning, investment and readiness.

“It’s a cultural thing as well. If you’re not a believer that something bad can happen, you aren’t necessarily going to take the time and make the effort to be prepared and tough enough to face it because you really don’t think it’s ever going to happen,” Reddock reasons. “There is acceptance that natural disasters can happen. We can see these things and the public is not protected from seeing and hearing about what happens, whereas we are sometimes unaware of security threats.”

Many real estate owners and developers are recognizing that they do need strategies, with a particular priority on susceptibility to electricity outages and flood damage.

“We probably still have a lot more thinking to do as an industry about exposure to risk, but a lot of companies are doing this internally. It may manifest itself in the selection of which assets to buy in some cases, ” Michael Brooks reports. “Coastal cities on low-lying plains and cities with rivers at their core are at risk. This is real and we now have solid examples in many Canadian cities.”

Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Building Strategies & Sustainability and Canadian Property Management.