Preparing Buildings for the Next Natural Disaster -- Resilience Series Part 2

As news reports of the human and infrastructure tolls of natural disasters become ever more prevalent, so to do discussions on how to make our buildings and other infrastructure more resilient to those forces.  Several key players in land use and development, including buildings’ research and standards organizations, have been looking at going beyond the minimum thresholds currently in use to further address disaster preparedness, safety, and climate mitigation in buildings.  In Part 1 of this series, we looked at ongoing efforts within Federal agencies and local communities on general resilience, Part 2 looks at specific resilience initiatives related to buildings.

As previously discussed in Part 1, resilience is commonly defined as the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from, and more successfully adapt to adverse events.  Adverse events could include natural disasters such as wildfires, prolonged drought, flooding, extreme temperatures, earthquakes, tornados or high winds, and superstorms (e.g., blizzards, hurricanes).  It could also include industrial disasters, infrastructure collapse (e.g., power grid failure), and acts of terror.  In Part 1, we identified a measure of a community’s resilience as having a functioning plan in place that protects human life and maintains vital services during an adverse event, or shortens the time needed to bring these services and local businesses back online.  Likewise, a measure of a building’s resilience is how well it performs under adverse conditions – and in some cases can quite literally mean that it is still standing after an extreme event.

Considerations for Building Resilience

In some cases updating older buildings and ensuring new buildings meet current code standards can increase the structure’s ability to withstand extreme events.  Vulnerable communities may place stricter requirements on “critical” buildings (e.g., hospitals, police and fire stations, stadiums, or schools) that are either needed for shelter or provide life-sustaining services.  Resilience is not a “one-size-fits-all” strategy, localized efforts should address at minimum the historical needs for that community, for example, blizzard prone areas may focus on insulation and protections against high winds. 

Resilient buildings will make use of structural and non-structural strategies.  Examples of structural mitigation measures from the National Institute of Building Sciences’ Whole Building Design Guide include, “building material and technique selection (e.g., use of ductile framing and shear walls), building code compliance, and site selection (e.g., soil considerations).”  In contrast, the guide continues, non-structural strategies focus on securing architectural elements and mechanical, electrical and plumbing components “to the structure or otherwise keep them in position and to minimize damage and functional disruption.”  Another example of resilience strategies can come from the FORTIFIED programs, which offer considerations for commercial and residential properties.  For commercial spaces, criteria can range from designing roof slopes to account for high wind or rain or heavy snow, using appropriate roofing materials, wall loads, impact resistant glazing, water intrusion resistance, evaluating underground utilities, shoring up foundations (flood forces), adequately addressing drainage, anchoring HVAC equipment and generators, and using flexible connections with automatic shut off.

Factoring Resilience into Building Codes

As it stands, some buildings are already being built to higher security and durability requirements, and codes currently exist in the development of secure buildings.  However, the Federal government and national standards based organizations are working currently on resilient building codes for general use as well as resilience incentives (see summary of these efforts below).  As much of the adoption and implementation of codes happens at the local level, AGC members and chapters often work with local governing bodies when it is time to review, update and enact local codes.  When considering general resilience codes at the local level, the building industry will need to ensure any new codes are relevant to the specific needs of the region.  The locality will need to invest in the education of both the regulators (i.e., code inspectors) and building community on any new requirements.  In addition, the building industry would be wise to manage any false expectation that “resilient” means “disaster proof”. 

Where Do Resilience and Green Buildings Intersect?

Building a fortress against the elements does not imply that the building will perform well in the areas of energy or water conservation; likewise, a green building may not withstand extreme weather events.  These two needs are intersecting in the emerging trend of “high-performing” buildings.  High-performing buildings take into account safety and security concerns as well as green building aspects.  Communities interested in building their resilience may also have a greater interest in resilient, green buildings that use renewable energy, present less of a drain on available resources, and help manage stormwater runoff.  This focus appears to be in response to a need to keep vital services “on line” in case of an emergency, to reduce loads during peak times to avoid brown-outs, and to reduce localized flooding.  The National Institute of Building Sciences’ Whole Building Design Guide and other NIBS tools, such as the National Performance Based Design Guide Tool, provide resources for high-performing buildings.

For More Information

Please see the summary of resilient buildings initiatives below for additional resources.  AGC also has been committed to raising awareness of this trend to members and to highlighting the need for infrastructure investment.  Specifically, with the approval of the AGC Building Division, AGC was one of 21 associations and professional societies in the building industries to sign a joint industry statement on resilience back in May 2014.  AGC has regularly provided educational sessions on resilience during its annual Contractors Environmental Conference (for example, see the schedule for AGC’s 2016 CEC) and has frequently highlighted resiliency-related news. (Follow AGC’s Twitter account for environmental news and trends at @AGCEnvironment.)

Click here for Resilience Part 1 focusing on federal and community initiatives related to general resilience.  For more information on resilience or green construction, contact Melinda Tomaino at

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Recent Federal Agency Initiatives Related to Resilient Buildings

Please see Resilience Part 1 with additional resources related to general resilience.  In addition, houses a compendium of government related climate adaption resources.  For the purpose of this article, the White House recently announced the government initiatives below that are specific to buildings.

  • U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD): Incorporation of Resilient Building Codes into Housing Programs – HUD will review, through the Department’s executive-level Climate Council, its existing building construction requirements with the goal of aligning program requirements with the most recent model building codes and standards for resilient construction.  This action responds to the 2014 Housing and Urban Development Climate Change Adaptation Plan recommendation to update building standards to incorporate sustainability and resilience measures.
  • Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Institute of Building Sciences: Update to the 2005 Multihazard Mitigation Council Mitigation Saves Study – FEMA will support an effort by the National Institute of Building Science to revisit and extend the 2005 Mitigation Saves study that demonstrated that for every dollar spent on hazard mitigation, society saves $4. 
  • FEMA: Disaster Deductible for the Public Assistance Program – FEMA also will explore incentivizing the adoption and enforcement of building codes at the state and local level through a disaster deductible requirement for the Public Assistance Program.  In January 2016, FEMA published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking introducing the deductible as a general concept and soliciting input from stakeholders.  FEMA is currently evaluating the extensive input that was received and is developing a more detailed plan, to be put forth for additional public discussion in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.  The revised plan would allow states to earn credits toward their deductible requirement through adoption and enforcement of building codes. 
  • General Services Administration (GSA): Climate Change Risk Screening for Capital Investment Leasing Program - GSA commits to systematically incorporate climate change risk management into its Capital Investment Program and the P-100 Facilities Standard. In addition, GSA commits to develop a decision-making framework to help GSA customers identify and manage climate-related risks to their supply chains. These efforts support best value decisions by addressing climate change vulnerabilities and ensuring that the initial public investment is fit for purpose over the asset life.
  • National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST): Codes and Standards for Resilience to Tornadoes – NIST, in coordination with FEMA and other Federal agencies, is developing state-of-the-science tornado hazard maps, which will underpin a new performance-based standard for design of buildings and other structures to better resist tornadoes. These tornado maps and standard will help design professionals ensure that future buildings are better equipped to withstand the impacts of high winds and debris. NIST also released, in 2013, a report on Developing Guidelines and Standards for Disaster Resilience of the Built Environment: A Research Needs Assessment.
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Resilient Building Codes Resource Website – The Corps launched a website to promote more resilient communities through use of the latest standards and criteria, building codes, and recent climate science. The Corps’ website serves as a single starting point for planners and designers with needs for greater building safety and resilience.
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): Smart Growth Code Fixes for Climate Adaptation Report – EPA will release of the Office of Sustainable Communities Smart Growth Code Fixes for Climate Adaptation report.  This report will give communities a menu of changes they can make to zoning and building codes and related policies to prepare for and adapt to climate change while bringing other environmental, economic, social, and health benefits. The report will be available in Fall 2016.
  • Mitigation Framework Leadership Group: Implementation Strategy for Increasing Disaster Resilience Through Federal Support for Building Code Adoption and Enforcement - The Federal interagency Mitigation Framework Leadership Group (MitFLG) Implementation Strategy for Increasing Disaster Resilience through Federal Support for Building Code Adoption and Enforcement will be released in Fiscal Year 2016.  This Strategy identifies several activities Federal departments and agencies can use to align programs, resources, and coordination efforts in the pursuit of increased resilience through building code adoption and enforcement.
  • U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Infrastructure Protection: Community Infrastructure Resilience Toolkit – DHS will release the Community Infrastructure Resilience Toolkit (CIRT) in late 2016. The CIRT will help communities develop a Community Infrastructure Resilience Plan that will provide actionable guidance for building critical infrastructure resilience considerations into planning and resource allocation decisions at the community level.
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA): Incorporation of Resilient Building Codes into Rural Housing Programs – USDA will review its existing building construction requirements with the goal of aligning program requirements with the most recent model building codes and standards for resilient construction.  This action responds to the 2014 USDA Climate Change Adaptation Plan recommendations to update building standards to incorporate sustainability and resilience measures.

Other Resilient Building Initiatives

  • The National Institute of Building Sciences – NIBS’ Whole Building Design Guide has resources on high-performing buildings.  NIBS also has a National Performance Based Design Guide Tool at that in addition to sustainability and other high-performance attributes (durability, accessibility, safety, etc.) addresses resilience concerns such as wind, seismic, blast, and flood through attributes of the building’s structural elements as well as the building envelope.  NIBS also has an Integrated Resilient Design Program that develops tools and resources to integrate resilience into buildings.
  • Resilience Programs – The FORTIFIED programs offer considerations for commercial and residential properties.  FORTIFIED also teamed up with the Portland Cement Association to suggest code language that overlays the International Building Code to further address sustainability and resiliency – called the High Performance Building Requirements for Sustainability.  The U.S. Resiliency Council will develop a building rating system for earthquakes.
  • Trade Associations – Similar to AGC of America’s efforts, several trade groups are organizing educational efforts to inform their membership base about resilience.
  • Professional Societies – Groups such as the American Institute of Architects and the American Society of Landscape Architects are developing design guidance and toolkits to help professionals incorporate resilient design into projects.
  • Codes and Standards Developers – ASHRAE and the International Code Council are working incorporating and supporting resilience efforts.  ICC plans to create a “whole-community” metric for resilience.
  • Green Building Organizations – The Green Building Initiative will use a resilience task force when updating its green building assessment standard.  The U.S. Green Building Council is involved in the Resilient Communities for America partnership.  USGBC also has developed a report, Green Building and Climate Resilience, Understanding Impacts and Preparing for Changing Conditions.
Industry Priorities