Building Resilience To More Extreme Weather Days

Weather, insurance and building experts predicted that the Washington D.C. area will likely see more extremely hot days, more days with heavy rain, less snowy days, and more localized flooding.  The vulnerabilities of buildings to this more volatile environment were the focus of “Designing for Extremes: Building a Resilient City”, a day-long symposium on building the next generation of properties. George Mason University’s Center for Real Estate Entrepreneurship (CREE), in partnership with the Washington Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, held the event last February 7 at the District Architecture Center in downtown Washington D.C.

Jason Samenow, the chief metereologist of the Washington Post, kicked off the event with data on weather trends over the last few decades in the Washington DC metro area.  In addition to long-term trends showing warmer average temperatures and higher levels of precipitation, the data showed more extreme days of weather such as days with record high temperatures and days with at least half an inch of rainfall.

“Today’s nuisance floods will be tomorrow’s regular high tides,” predicted Samenow, as these trends will continue in the coming decades.

Dr. Lou Gritzo, the vice president for research of leading global insurance company FM Global, encouraged building designers and developers to reduce the impacts of extreme weather with proactive design and the use of building materials certified for resilience standards.  Their firm’s research and testing confirms that, with proper planning and the right partners as suppliers and contractors, the cost difference should not be substantial and pays off in reduced risk and lower insurance premiums.

Gritzo emphasized that real estate professionals should pay particular attention to increased flooding risk, particularly in river watershed and low-lying areas. Resilient operations are increasingly important for businesses. “75% of U.S. workers feel that their employer is not prepared for a natural disaster,” said Gritzo. “Only 29% are confident that their company will bounce back quickly from a natural disaster.”

Katie Wholey of engineering firm Arup discussed recent lessons learned from the impact of Hurricane Sandy on New York City properties.  She stressed that resilience design should be part of planning process for new or redeveloped properties early and throughout the process to ensure effective implementation, reduced costs, and flexible solutions.  Development teams require continuous education on the resiliency strategies that have not been major considerations in the past.

Wholey presented several case studies of properties which have successfully been retrofitted with resilient features, including a public housing project in Brooklyn which built gathering spaces well above expected flood levels and consolidated heat and electric plants in upper floors.

Kate Johnson of the Washington D.C. Department of Energy and the Environment presented government policies supporting the resilience beyond individual buildings and focused on high risk neighborhoods with vulnerable populations, particularly to more frequent extreme heat days and flooding.  Policies include community-identified evacuation sites, upgrading storm water and other critical infrastructure during road construction, and incorporating resiliency features in local government facilities.  With commercial building projects, the D.C. government encourages (but at the moment, does not mandate) the use of resilient features and provides a design evaluation tool similar to what Boston has developed for new development after Hurricane Sandy.

Ben Myers, the director of sustainability of major commercial developer Boston Properties, showed several examples of his company’s strategies to address the risk of extreme weather events, particularly flooding in high-value waterfront properties.  Strategies included deployment of pop-up flood walls, strengthening of ground floor perimeter walls to withstand pressure from flood walls, ground level floors designed with tear-away walls, and raised mechanical and elevator equipment. Myers expects resiliency to grow as a building competitive advantage as large corporate tenants increasingly value the ability to continue operations and minimize downtime in the event of major weather events.

Architect Jon Penndorf of Perkins+Will introduced a new measurement standard for building resiliency, RELi, developed by Perkins+Will and subsequently acquired by the US Green Building Council.  Currently under final development and pilot testing, the RELi standard will initially be an add-on to LEED certification which more familiar to the real estate industry.

Penndorf also provided several case studies such as the Viacom building in Times Square, New York City and a major hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas.  Two main lessons from these projects were to consider the human element of resiliency planning (such as the concern of building staff and employees for their families’ well-being in the event of a wide-spread emergency) and to incorporate multi-use spaces (such as rooftops as gathering spaces, offices as medical facilities, common areas as neighborhood gathering points).

An engaged audience of building design, development, and construction professionals discussed issues raised by the experts’ presentation including questions on the cost of resilient features, quantifying the cost of extreme weather risks, the role of landscape design, changes in operations of properties adjacent to streams, coordinating with owners of adjacent properties, working with extreme weather skeptics, the cost of government mandates for resiliency standards, and a wide range of additional questions and topics.

“One of the slides from the presenters struck me as a good summary of entire day.  It said – avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable,” said Eric Maribojoc, executive director of CREE. “This conference was about what we as real estate professionals can do to build properties and communities that can contribute to both reducing and mitigating the causes and effects of extreme weather.”

Presentations from the conference can be seen HERE.


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