Shortly after Category 4 Hurricane Michael hit the small community of Mexico Beach in Florida’s Panhandle in October, a New York Times (NYT) story of a single house still standing among a debris-covered shore went viral. The structure survived because its design and construction went far beyond the local code requirements.
Like climate change, resiliency is a big issue that ultimately benefits everyone when addressed as part of a large-scale holistic response at the design stage. But small changes, implemented as part of everyday renovations to existing construction or incorporated from the start in new construction, can also make a big difference—and at relatively minor cost.
For a single-family residence, the client’s interest—and ability to pay—can itself lead to resilience. But for multifamily housing and commercial construction, when should architects, owners, and developers consider achieving resiliency? Below, several industry leaders share what measures can be considered to increase a project’s resiliency along with their associated costs.
Was it a miracle, grace, or shrewd planning that left this one house standing in an array of destruction along Mexico Beach after Hurricane Michael? https://t.co/fnD451aDqF— NYT National News (@NYTNational) October 15, 2018
“There are ways to build resiliently and cost effectively at the same time,” says Anne Cope, chief engineer and senior vice president of research at the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS). Funded by property insurers and reinsurers, the Tampa, Fla.–based nonprofit is dedicated to identifying “real-world” solutions to create more resilient communities.
One example Cope cites is Habitat Strong, which applies IBHS’s Fortified recommendations to affordable construction through Habitat for Humanity’s building program. “It’s useful to juxtapose the Habitat homes with the Sand Palace,” Cope says, referencing the subject of the NYT story mentioned above. “Both owners made choices to build resiliently, but in different ways.”
According to IBHS, one out of four business that close due to disasters never reopen—and that figure is likely higher for small businesses whose sole point of operation is put out of commission. “One event can undo decades of work,” says Laurie Schoeman, the national senior program director for resilience at New York–based Enterprise Community Partners, which aids disaster recovery efforts and develops climate-resistant communities across the country.
Resilient Resources and Investment
Many documents are available that can guide an architect-led approach to resiliency planning for any building type. Mark Ginsberg, FAIA, founding partner at New York–based Curtis + Ginsberg Architects and chair of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council post-Sandy code committee, with which he has developed resiliency strategies for New York City, points to the city’s Climate Resiliency website and the reports “Retrofitting Buildings for Flood Risk” and “Resilient Retail.” While New York’s Department of City Planning prepared these reports in response to 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, the documents offer broad guidance that can be applied in other locales.
“You can have resilience at many different price points,” Cope notes. Active measures, Ginsberg adds, include hurricane-certified windows, wind- and impact-resistant shingles, and, for projects located in flood plains, a robust structural system that can withstand wave action.
Most importantly, Ginsberg continues, is that the building is able to function both off-line and off-grid. This leads him to stress the importance of creating passive resiliency. “Allow people to weather [the storm or the fallout] in place,” he says. “You want them to be relatively comfortable.” Insulating the building above code requirements and providing a means for natural ventilation are among the common-sense tactics that can increase resiliency without significantly increasing the construction budget.
Strategies and Details
The success of a design’s resiliency comes down to the construction details. “First and foremost, make sure you have the roof right,” Cope advises. This includes ensuring that all flashing—along openings, eaves, ridge, everything—is secure during the most hazardous of conditions using continuous blocking rather than intermittent cleats. And fastening patterns on the roof matter. “You don’t want it to unzip,” Cope says. “You want your roof to be on solid and keep Mother Nature out.”
Attention to the interior design details can also have a big effect. Cope notes that specifying water-resistant finishes can be beneficial, particularly in a coastal environment. When flooring, wallcoverings, and furnishings can be quickly dried and cleaned, a hotel or similar business can open their doors after an event.
“Installation can make a huge difference in the long-term performance of the building,” Cope adds. Simply following the manufacturer’s recommendations more carefully can have an impact. One example IBHS has studied is the installation of PTAC (packaged terminal air conditioner) units, or through-wall heating and cooling units commonly specified for hotels, apartments, and healthcare facilities. Properly installed units are placed within their sleeves, drain to the outside, and are tightly weatherstripped and caulked.
But their fate rests with construction workers. “They’re designed to be installed at a slight angle to allow water to drain, but they seldom are installed this way,” Cope says. “So, every time there’s a big thunderstorm, water comes in.” Reminding the contractor of what’s expected and keeping an eye out during installation cost nothing, but can translate into meaningful savings later.
In 2012, IBHS conducted a high-wind test on two aesthetically similar, full-scale commercial construction mock-ups at its research facility in Richburg, S.C. One version was built using common practice standards of that era while the “stronger” version followed the then-contemporary 2012 codes. Both comprised similar materials, with the primary differences lying in the “stronger, safer, wind-resistant details and installation” for the latter structure.
The resulting damage to the standard, more economical structure was 10 times greater than its more robust counterpart, which cost only 5 percent more in construction costs. And these calculations did not consider the price of business interruption, shutdown, and/or failure due to disruption of operations, which, as documented from real-world examples, can be significant.
From this specific test of the two masonry structures, which looked like they could slip into any strip mall in America, IBHS aggregated several simple changes that it observed made a big difference in success or failure. These recommendations, with best practices noted first, could apply to many building typologies, beyond retail construction:
- Roof cover: Enhance perimeter and corner attachment of membrane roof versus typical roof membrane attachment.
- Flashing: Crimp metal fascia over continuous metal cleat versus unsupported metal fascia with intermittent metal cleats.
- Rooftop equipment: Secure to structural mounting curbs that directly attach to the open-web bar joists supporting the structural steel frame of the roof deck versus securing equipment on unattached sleepers with only four small aluminum connectors at base.
- Masonry walls: Build walls following industry guidance with steel reinforcement to create continuous load path from roof to foundation versus typical poor detailing/missing reinforcement.
Each of these recommendations represent relatively minor upticks in cost compared to their baseline. Similar to the correct installation of PTAC units, constructing masonry walls to specification—rather than permitting shoddy practices with haphazard and sometimes missing installation of reinforcement—shouldn’t add to the budget at all. In fact, Cope notes, the stronger module’s higher price tag was due predominantly to one resiliency measure: “The majority of the additional cost was tying down the HVAC equipment on the roof.”
Construction upgrades aren’t enough to increase a project’s resiliency. “You have to have an operations/emergency plan,” Schoeman says. Even if the building damage is minor, the time spent without access to conventional power sources and critical services can magnify the effects of any event. That’s when Ginsburg’s advice to incorporate passive design can provide immediate relief along with the additional benefit, as Schoeman adds, of “usually lower utility costs.” Those savings can help defray additional rehabilitation costs and help sell the initial investment to owners.
While preparing for every scenario is impossible, Ginsberg acknowledges, “when you have to do something, do it with thought. In some ways, it’s an educated guess”—something architects should be familiar with.
In the meantime, IBHS expects to have a robust cost benefit analysis of its Fortified program completed next year. Cope believes the study’s results will bolster the argument for the investment: “A few pennies on the dollar up front are going to have a huge impact on a building’s overall importance.”