Delivering Disaster-Resilient Buildings

Building commissioning helps secure standards that help protect facilities physically and financially.

By H. Jay Enck, HDBP, BEAP, BCxP, LEED AP BD+C, LEED Fellow
From the October 2021 Issue

Significant increases in occurrences of natural and manmade disasters are being reported. The instances have broad impact, whether it be hurricanes and the remaining tropical storms causing widespread flooding, tornadoes taking vast swaths of areas and tearing them apart, or forest fires consuming 4.2 million areas of forest—including its valuable tree canopy, resulting in emissions of an estimated 112 million metric tons of carbon dioxide and significant loss of property, human life, and wildlife. These disasters cost billions of dollars annually, and people and infrastructure need resiliency.

There are many organizations focused on the issue, with varying definitions of resilience. One of the most comprehensive definitions comes from the Department of Homeland Security, which incorporates the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA defines resilience as “the ability to adapt to changing conditions and withstand and rapidly recover from disruption due to emergencies.” Thus, our national preparedness must be a shared responsibility of building resiliency.

natural disasters resilient buildings
(Photo: Adobe Stock / stnazkul)

Data from Hurricane Katrina, which hammered Louisiana and Mississippi 16 years ago, provides insight into the need for resilient building enclosures. Katrina was a $125 billion hit to the U.S. economy. Researchers at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge estimated an 80% reduction in wind damage from Katrina if more robust building codes had been adhered to and in place. In addition, on projects where building enclosure failures have led to complete removal of the building enclosure, the experience at my firm CxGBS (Commissioning & Green Building Solutions, Inc.) has been that the replacement cost is generally 150% of the original construction cost—which would have more than paid for the development of a more resilient building. Each project provides lessons learned, which can apply to future projects.

For instance, Katrina’s destruction of public safety buildings in Biloxi, MS caused communication loss between local emergency personnel and the facilities to store human remains. CxGBS was selected to help with the replacement of these public safety buildings. The disaster lessons were captured in the rebuilding process using the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) Building Commissioning Process to define the Owner’s Project Requirements (OPR) in pre-design—building commissioning (Cx) is the professional practice that ensures buildings are delivered according to the OPR. The project called for the design, construction, and operation of a Communication Center, Crime Lab, Morgue, Bureau of Investigation, and Highway Patrol public safety building. In addition to FEMA criteria for various levels of resilience, the ASHRAE Process helped balance the cost, and identify infrastructure requirements needed to support public safety activities before, during, and after hurricanes.

The CxGBS Commissioning Team (Cx Team) worked closely with the owner and design team to evaluate design documents against the OPR and provide design assistance in contract document development. During construction, the Cx Team evaluated construction activities by observing and testing building assemblies and systems that meet the OPR, design intent, and quality required to achieve building resilience, including operational performance during the warranty period. By contrast, during Hurricane Ida in 2021, replacement public safety buildings performed as intended, withstanding an equivalent assault delivered during Katrina due to lessons learned. These results are what make resiliency improvements for facilities necessary.

natural disasters resilient buildings
Improving resiliency of buildings and sites includes defining risk, identifying goals, assembling a team, and documenting the progress. (Image: Adobe Stock / beeboys)

Why should owners consider making a new or existing building more resilient? First, the effects of climate change make past weather patterns less accurate predictors of future weather events. Second, assaults aimed at our infrastructure, businesses, hospitals, schools, and banks through the internet regularly creates a compelling need to strengthen our buildings. Third, mitigation is cost-effective. A 2005 study funded by FEMA and conducted by the Washington, DC-based National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) found that every dollar spent on mitigation would save $4 in losses. Lastly, creating resilient buildings and infrastructure reduces the risk of property, life, and financial impact on organizations. In December of 2020, McAfee Corp., in collaboration with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, found an estimated hidden annual cost of cybercrime to be over $1 trillion globally. Therefore, building owners need to protect their assets.

To get started increasing resiliency in new or existing buildings, owners should:

Define their risks and document goals and objectives using building commissioning to develop OPR for new buildings, or Current Facility Requirements (CFR) for existing buildings, creating a foundation for success. The OPR/CFR helps create team collaboration by providing the Owner’s goals and objectives to form a roadmap to achieving a high-performance building. Further, it integrates and optimizes on a life cycle basis all major high-performance attributes, including energy conservation, environment, safety, security, durability, accessibility, cost-benefit, productivity, sustainability, functionality, and operational considerations.

Financing Resilience Projects

From U.S. DOE Better Buildings Program

Resilience is emerging as a critical issue for commercial buildings, particularly in light of recent disruptions from climate and weather events. Owners and operators of commercial properties are placing greater emphasis on improving the resilience of their assets and mitigating risk from natural disasters and other stressors. At the same time, financial markets are beginning to think more seriously about how to manage systemic resilience risk in portfolios of real estate assets.

Research shows that resilience and financial performance are closely linked. Investors, mortgage lenders, and insurers are increasingly concluding that climate and resilience risk can have a meaningful impact on financial returns and that managing this risk is a critical part of fiduciary duty. Building owners are putting resilience plans in place to preserve the value of their properties, protect occupants, and attract investment. However, resilience is a fluid topic, and many building owners are unsure where to start and what tools are available to help.

Through its Better Buildings program, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) brought together a roundtable of Better Buildings partners, allies and stakeholders in recent years to foster clarity, collaboration, and guidance on resilience issues and how these affect energy and financial performance in buildings. The main outcome of this work is the “Resilience Roadmap”—a set of resources and case studies designed to help commercial building owners develop a plan for measuring, managing, and mitigating resilience risk.

Better Buildings offers toolkits and other resources for financing projects to make facilities more resilient. Each resource in the roadmap discusses a key issue in measuring, managing, and mitigating resilience risk.

The resources in this toolkit focus on five steps:

  • Building the Financial Business Case
  • Managing Insurance Cost and Business Risk
  • Financing and Implementing Resilience Projects
  • Benchmarking and Disclosing Resilience Performance
  • Creating a Resilience Risk Management Plan

These resources can be found on the Better Buildings website.

Determine team expertise needed, and engage a Building Commissioning Professional (BCxP) with experience in similar facilities. The commissioning team will manage the building commissioning process, assist with developing the OPR/CFR, integrate commissioning requirements into the design and construction agreements as subsequent contract documents, and help ensure the meeting of owners goals and objectives. The team provides these actions through observation, testing, and analysis of building assemblies and systems. In addition, commissioning professionals engaged through the warranty period will ensure the building is performing as intended and that occupants successfully adjust to their daily missions.

Document and continuously evaluate that the owner’s goals and objectives are being met to ensure a high-performance building that can adapt to changing conditions and withstand or recover from disruption due to emergencies. This Building Commissioning should be performed per ASHRAE Standards and Guidelines to ensure a quality process. The Commissioning process also provides and documents training to the owner’s operational and maintenance entity. The method monitors the building’s operation and performance, providing a feedback loop to increase knowledge and maintain the structure operates optimally. Furthermore, as resiliency changes, so do the Building Commissioning Standards and Guidelines, as ASHRAE updates and develops them. The world is ever-changing, and building owners need to protect their buildings by changing along with it.

natural disastersEnck is the Chief Technical Officer and Principal-in-charge for Commissioning & Green Building Solutions, Inc. (CxGBS®). He graduated from California Polytechnic University, and is a leader in commissioning, operational efficiencies, building forensics and enclosures, green design, and sustainable development. Enck is credited with creating the Holistic Commissioning® process. With over 40 years of experience in engineering, construction, and building operations in multiple market sectors, he is a subject matter expert who serves as a speaker at industry conferences. Enck is currently the ASHRAE Chair for commissioning, and serves as a contributing author for several ASHRAE industry guidelines and standards, and USGBC LEED® Rating System Reference Guides.

Do you have a comment? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below, or send an e-mail to the Editor at

Check out all the recent FM Issue columns from Facility Executive magazine.