Resilient Buildings: Standing In The Face Of Disaster

Buildings and communities can look to codes, standards, and financing to achieve sustainability and resilience goals.

By Ryan M. Colker, J.D., CAE
From the October 2023 Issue


A community’s ability to survive and thrive following a disastrous event often hinges on the state of its building stock. While often taken for granted, buildings are the foundation that makes economies work. The workforce relies on the availability of housing and schools, while businesses need warehouses, office buildings, stores, and factories to conduct their operations.

As disasters become more frequent and intense, the importance of a resilient building stock becomes increasingly important. By September 2023, the U.S. broke the record for annual disasters causing $1 billion or more in damages¹ with 23 such disasters (surpassing the 22 we saw in 2020). These events spanned the country and included two flooding events, 18 severe storm events, one tropical cyclone event, one wildfire event, and one winter storm event. These events do not include more localized or smaller scale events that still significantly impact communities.

Resilient Buildings
(Photo: Adobe Stock / Maelgoa)

Social And Economic Resilience Through Buildings

The social and economic resilience of communities relies on the ability of buildings to remain operational. For most design level events, modern, up-to-date building codes provide a level of protection that keeps community members safe.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) found that the application of building codes provided more than $27 billion in cumulative mitigation benefits against flood, hurricane wind, and earthquake hazards from 2000 to 2016. However, that application is not uniform: 65% of counties, cities, and towns across the U.S. have not adopted modern building codes, only 50% of cumulative post-2000 construction adhered to the International Codes (I-Codes), and 30% of new construction is occurring in communities with no codes at all or codes that are more than 20 years outdated. If all new buildings across the U.S. were built to modern editions of the I-Codes, the country would save more than $600 billion by 2060.

In addition to the growing frequency of hazards like hurricanes and wildfires, extreme heat or extreme cold events are becoming more commonplace. Buildings again provide a respite from such events. A recent U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) study found that applying the latest editions of energy codes (the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) and ASHRAE Standard 90.1-2019) can save lives² with benefit cost ratios from 2 to over 7.2.

Weather and Climate Disasters
Click image to enlarge.


These savings come in addition to the energy and sustainability benefits that come with using the latest I-Codes. According to DOE analysis, the 2021 IECC’s commercial provisions provide a national average site energy savings of 12.1% and a 10.2% greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions savings for commercial buildings relative to the 2018 IECC. These increased savings are critically important in reducing climate impacts at multiple scales. At an individual building level, these represent operational cost savings, at a corporate level they impact a company’s overall GHG emissions and those of its customers as climate impacts are under increasing scrutiny, and at a national and international level they help reduce the approximately 40% of overall GHG emissions that are attributed to buildings.

Despite the significant impacts of building codes, as discussed above, their adoption is not uniform. While individual facility executives can (and should) insist on projects meeting or exceeding the latest building and energy codes, the greatest impacts come at the community scale. Individual buildings rarely exist in isolation and rely on the services provided through other buildings in their community (housing, warehousing, utilities, government, first responders, etc.). Setting a community-level standard through minimum codes helps protect individual facilities and the functioning of the community.

Transforming Existing Buildings

However, most code provisions are only applicable for new construction or retrofits. Yet, in most communities and most portfolios, most of the current building stock and what will remain for the foreseeable future are existing buildings. A well-orchestrated retrofit initiative can capture both resilience and sustainability benefits. Fortunately, multiple sources of funding or financing are available to help support owners in undertaking such retrofits. Many of these programs point to existing codes and standards as part of their design criteria or verification processes.

While initially focused on sustainability, many states are expanding their property assessed capital expenditure (PACE) programs to include resilience investments.

While initially focused on sustainability, many states are expanding their property assessed capital expenditure (PACE)³ programs to include resilience investments. PACE programs allow sustainability and resilience investments to be financed upfront with payback requirements tied to the property rather than the owner. This allows for positive cash flow while implementing positive capital improvements.

Numerous incentives exist at the federal, state, and local levels, either through government or utility programs. Many new incentives were established in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law or Inflation Reduction Act in 2022. While these can be hard to navigate, the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE) provides information on programs available in your area.

New policies are also emerging to drive increased efficiency in existing buildings. Representatives from 46 states and localities have indicated an intent to establish a building performance standard or BPS by April 2024. BPS requires existing buildings to achieve minimum levels of energy or climate performance and can accelerate the need for retrofits to meet energy performance targets. These retrofits should also incorporate resilience measures to the extent practical.

Alignment of BPS with energy codes is essential to implementing an efficient and cost-effective building energy policy.  The International Code Council has developed a resource to help support a holistic approach to the efficient use of energy across the entire lifecycle of a building and discusses the importance of a coordinated approach across energy codes and Building Performance Standards.

Resilient Buildings
(Photo: Adobe Stock / margo alexa)

Resilient Buildings: What’s Next

Numerous tools and resources exist to drive resilience and sustainability decision-making, but additional strategies are still developing. As corporate and policymaker attention focuses on environmental, social and governance (ESG) reporting and reduction of impacts, a holistic understanding of a building’s impact across its life cycle, including the materials and processes used in its construction and its operations, is necessary. Unfortunately, standards to measure and report on the whole-life impacts of buildings have not been available. ASHRAE and the Code Council are in the process of rectifying that gap with the development of ASHRAE/ICC Standard 240 – Quantification of Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Buildings.

Offsite construction is emerging as a strategy to address disaster recovery, enhanced resilience and sustainability, workforce productivity, and job site safety. Jurisdictions, designers, and building developers are at different stages in their understanding and use of offsite construction.

The Code Council has developed numerous resources to help bridge the gaps in understanding and use. Working with the Modular Building Institute, the Code Council developed ICC/MBI Standard 1200 and 1205 to help provide some consistency and efficiency in how offsite construction projects are regulated.

Disaster RecoveryStanding Up To Extreme Weather

Routine inspection, testing, and maintenance (ITM) is a critical part of a facility manager’s role when dealing with extreme weather. Read more…

Finally, as communities and building owners look to ensure buildings are protected from the growing impacts of disastrous events, the concept of climate-resilient design is growing. Buildings in the future are likely to face very different risks than they have in the past. Determining what those risks look like can be challenging given the uncertainty in climate models—particularly at a local scale. Some jurisdictions, like New York City, have started to develop an approach, but a national or internationally applicable approach has been challenging.

The Code Council joined code development and research organizations from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to develop Global Building Resilience Guidelines that provide principles for such an approach. As facility managers and owners look to enhance their climate resilience, the Guidelines offer a starting point for design and operational requirements.

Buildings are at the core of community and corporate resilience. Facility executives need the tools and strategies to ensure buildings continue to deliver sustainability and resilience that support their community and their customers. Codes, standards, and financing are in place to achieve those goals, and more support is on the way. 





Ryan M. Colker, J.D., CAEColker is the vice president of innovation at the International Code Council where he identifies 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 the development of new business strategies that support members and building safety professionals. He also serves as executive director of the Alliance for National and Community Resilience. Most recently, Colker was the vice president of the National Institute of Building Sciences, where he led the institute’s efforts to improve the built environment through collaboration of public and private sectors. Previously, he was the manager of government affairs at ASHRAE.

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


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here