Resilient Buildings As First Line Of Defense

Assess risks and access resources to fortify your facilities to withstand threats and hazards.

By Ryan Colker
From the October 2020 Issue

Creating and maintaining resilient and sustainable buildings has long been on the minds of not only facility managers and owners, but anyone involved in building safety. After all, buildings, whether residential or commercial, act as society’s first line of defense against all types of threats—manmade and natural. This has never been truer than in 2020 where many communities are facing multiple threats that jeopardize facilities and their inhabitants. Between people spending exponentially more time indoors to ensuring our buildings remain standing in the face of a natural hazard, there is no better time for facility managers and owners to develop and implement a resilience strategy.

resilient buildings
(Photo: Jovannig/iStock)

Conduct A Risk Assessment

The first step in any resilience strategy is to ask the question: “resilient to what?” Understandably, trying to keep track of all potential threats can be overwhelming for facility managers and owners, especially as the types of threats we face are evolving.

As many managers and owners are aware—when it comes to preparing their buildings against threats and risks, there is truly a cornucopia to think about. However, by trying to guard against all threats, facility managers and owners run the risk of having an unfocused strategy and depleting their available resources on unnecessary preparations. Not every threat should be given the same priority!

In fact, facing an array of potential threats it is critical that facility managers and owners conduct a thorough risk assessment before formulating any type of plan or preparations. Since strategies for creating resilient buildings is not a one-size-fits-all plan and will be dependent on factors like location, budget, and the age of the building, a risk assessment provides managers and owners with a clearer view of threats that could actually impact them versus the “idea” of a potential threat.

For example, when it comes to fire safety, a building owner in a dense urban core in the northeast should be less concerned with the potential of wildfires and instead focus on fire threats of the man-made variety such as a faulty fuse from an outdated electrical system. To highlight the impact that building age can have on a risk assessment—a newer building that has all the latest technology and is connected to a full IOT ecosystem faces relatively more risk against cybersecurity threats. Whereas an older building without these features may instead need to focus on retrofitting its facilities to adhere to the latest building codes and standards.

Often, cities, counties, or states have done some of the legwork in identifying the potential threats likely to occur in a community through a hazard mitigation plan, continuity of operations plan, or similar type of activity. Facility managers and owners should consult these plans and use these as a starting point for developing facility specific risk assessments.

The International Codes (I-Codes), developed by the International Code Council (ICC), can be used to help identify common regional hazards and strategies to overcome these. Providing a minimum safeguard for people at home, at school, at play, and in the workplace, the I-Codes are the most widely used and highly regarded set of building safety codes in the world and are currently adopted and used in the 50 U.S. states, U.S. territories, and in many other countries. Encompassing all aspects of building safety, the I-Codes include codes on plumbing (IPC), fire and gas safety (IFGC), mechanical (IMC), and more.

resilient buildings
Developed by the International Code Council (ICC), the I-Codes encompass aspects of building safety: plumbing, fire and gas safety, mechanical, and more. (Photo: International Code Council (ICC))

Additionally, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) maintains resources to support resilience activities in commercial facilities. Meanwhile, some communities have established Chief Resilience Officers to work with community stakeholders to improve resilience.

Prepare For Natural Hazards And Man-Made Threats

Once it is understood which risks are most likely to affect a building, then the true planning and upgrading can begin. Without fully understanding the potential risks a building faces, it can be near impossible to create a resilient building.

The Alliance for National & Community Resilience (ANCR) has developed a Buildings Benchmark to help communities better prepare their building stock to support community resilience goals. Recommended actions include having the local building industry participate in emergency management exercises, identifying critical facilities and highly vulnerable structures to support targeted incentive and retrofit programs. Facility managers are encouraged to use the ANCR Buildings Benchmark to help highlight the important role of buildings in the resilience of their community and to work with community leaders to identify resources that support mutual performance goals.

Traditionally, one of the biggest risk concerns for facility managers and owners has been local natural hazards such as hurricanes, tornadoes, or wildfires. However, with technology advancing at an exponential rate, potential risks to buildings are evolving to include issues like cybersecurity or as our current situation has shown—a global pandemic. Fortunately, while the number of potential threats may be expanding, the tactics for upgrading a building’s resiliency are also becoming more effective, especially in the form of modern and innovative building codes.

For example, whether for wildfires or an airborne chemical/biological attack, the I-Codes from ICC provide criteria for building ventilation and filtration systems to keep the inhabitants safe. After all, when it comes to airborne threats even those not directly in the affected area must be careful because winds can often carry particles over hundreds of miles to impact outdoor air quality. Therefore, to ensure resiliency it is important to ensure a building’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system is not only fully functioning but cleaned and the filters replaced on a regular basis.

For buildings in locations with high hurricane or storm activity, it is important to address threats like flooding, high winds, and debris. For flooding, this can be as easy as ensuring the entryways and electrical equipment are located above the base flood elevation. However, in a case where entryways were built below this elevation, sandbags and temporary flood gates can be inserted around entrances (and should be planned for in advance).

To protect against windborne debris, determine if windows or fenestration are impact resistant and if these are not consider outfitting them with shutters or applying a protective film.

A building’s roof serves as an essential line of defense. Regular inspections should be conducted. Facility managers should determine if ballasted roofs could pose a threat in high-wind areas adding to wind-borne debris.

Look Out For Available Funding, Resources

Resiliency is important, and undeniably it can also be expensive to retrofit a building for resiliency. With this in mind, many communities have established incentive programs to support retrofits including through commercial property assessed clean energy/property assessed capital expenditures (PACE) programs. From improving seismic vulnerability to adopting clean energy, these programs encourage managers and owners to mitigate against potential weaknesses and to address many challenges with dedicating capital to a project.

Knowing how to retrofit an existing building to meet the latest building code and standards, the International Existing Building Code (IEBC) covers repair, alteration, addition, and change of occupancy for existing and historic buildings, while achieving appropriate levels of safety without requiring full compliance with the new construction requirements contained in the other I-Codes.

USGBC Focus On Resilience

A resilient building is also a sustainable building. There are many aspects in which designing for resiliency overlaps with sustainable building strategies. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) administers its focus on this aspect through The Center for Resilience. A USGBC initiative housing all of the Council’s resilience activities, The Center for Resilience is a resource where facility management professionals, along with all building industry stakeholders, can find information on the design, construction, operation of resilient structures.

USGBC has defined resilience as the “ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from, and more successfully adapt to adverse events.” The Center for Resilience features four aspects of buildings around which to define resilience: Design Planning, Healthy Site, Maintaining Project Site, and Catastrophic Event. These are expanded upon on the Center’s website as follows:

  • Design Planning: Proactive design planning and construction for potential impacts of reasonably expected natural disasters with minimal damage.
  • Healthy Site: Creation and execution of a site development plan that promotes healthy vegetation, soils, and aquatic ecosystems to provide ecosystem services such as flood control.
  • Maintaining Project Site: Design, building, and maintaining of the project site and adjacent landscapes to reduce risk of wildfire
  • Catastrophic Event: Support for community recovery during catastrophic events and extended bulk power grid outages by enabling islanding and power reliability to essential services.

In December 2018, USGBC published the latest version of the RELi™ 2.0 Rating System (RELi 2.0), administered by GBCI. This is a holistic, resilience-based rating system that combines design criteria with the latest in integrative design processes for neighborhoods, buildings, homes and infrastructure. By selectively bundling existing sustainable and regenerative guidelines—including many credits drawn from LEED rating system—with RELi’s credits for emergency preparedness, adaptation, and community vitality, RELi 2.0 is designed as a comprehensive certification rating system for design and construction.

Most recently, the USGBC and GBCI released a four-page brief “Building a healthier, more resilient future,” which outlines existing resilience resources along with new opportunities. The document highlights these resources for building industry stakeholders at a time when resilient, sustainable building design and operations is of interest to an increasing number of people throughout the world. Key areas covered are: LEED and other building certification systems, data and technology resources, workforce education, advocacy, and partnerships. The brief document can be found here.

To learn more about the resources available through The Center For Resilience, visit the USGBC website. Explore the RELi Rating System here.

Resiliency for buildings has become a necessity. With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing people to spend more time indoors, a resilient built environment is more important than ever. Understanding this, the ICC has created a Coronavirus task force, gathering the brightest minds across the building industry to address COVID-19 concerns and advise on tips and best practices. Knowledge gleaned from the task force include: new ventilation strategies, how to update general building designs to address whether partitions create potential fire hazards, and how to set up screening areas in lobbies.

As the natural hazards and man-made threats around us continue to advance, so must our buildings. If we expect our buildings to last for a hundred years, then creating resiliency is a critical priority now.

resilient buildingsColker is vice president of innovation for the International Code Council. He works to identify emerging issues in the building industry, including how new technologies can be leveraged by codes and standards, methods to modernize the application of building regulations, and development of business strategies that support members and building safety professionals. He also serves as executive director of the Alliance for National and Community Resilience (ANCR). Prior to the Code Council, Colker was vice president of the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS). Before that, he was manager of Government Affairs at ASHRAE. Colker holds a Juris Doctor degree in Environmental & Administrative Law from George Washington University Law School in Washington, DC, and a Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Policy from the University of Florida, Gainesville, FL.

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