Adapting to Climate Change through Better Building Design

Aug 31st, 2013 | By | Category: Climate Change, Environmental Management

EHS Journal - Texas Skyscraper by Martyn E. Jones

In recent years, while some debated whether climate change was real or not, preparing one’s assets for the impacts of climate change was not a priority. This attitude seemed to change with Hurricane Sandy, which struck the East Coast of the United States nearly a year ago. Many people felt that the storm was a symptom of climate change, a warning that “100-year” storms will happen more frequently in the future and the associated costs will be astronomically high. This realization has led to analyses of how we can change our buildings and cities to minimize the impacts of future storms and in so doing, adapt to climate change.


Adapting to Climate Change

Four major reports about climate change adaptation have been published recently focusing on the cities of New York, Boston, London, and Toronto. The reports emphasize that building managers must plan for climate change impacts and prepare for them intelligently to save money and lives. The recommendations in the report Building Resilience in Boston offer a common sense approach that could be used by others.

These recommendations include the following:

  • Evaluate vulnerability and risk.  Determine where flooding or wind damage may strike buildings and property in the event of a major storm. Use new flood and climate change data to plan and potentially change escape routes and to create safe, sheltered areas of refuge.


  • Build sites for higher rain flows. To reduce the impacts of more frequent flooding,
    • Investigate and implement “hard infrastructure” upgrades such as installing enlarged drainage pipes, levees, sandbags, floodwalls, and gates. Also, investigate and implement “soft infrastructure” upgrades such as wetlands and rain gardens that absorb more rain.
    • Use pervious pavement (e.g., porous asphalt, rubberized asphalt, pervious concrete) on sidewalks and parking lots.
    • Install catch basins or retention ponds to store water either for release into the storm water system after the storm has passed or for non-potable uses such as landscaping.
    • Build grassy swales along roadsides to enhance groundwater infiltration.


  • Flood-proof buildings.
    • Elevate buildings or at least all key components (e.g., electrical switches, stored fuels, toxic compounds, boilers, potable water systems) above the design flood elevation, which should be revised for potential climate change-related increases in rainfall.
    • Seal exterior walls.
    • If there are still vulnerable areas, create a corridor for water to be led away from key service components and exits. Secure items (e.g., equipment, tanks) that could be dislocated by flood waters and act as “missiles” that could physically damage buildings or other critical infrastructure.
    • Install back-flow protection valves and sump pumps on sewer connections to provide protection against flooding and damage from sanitary sewers.


  • Stabilize slopes vulnerable to erosion.
    • Use sloping and grading techniques or plant vegetation to stabilize slopes.
    • Facilities near a coastline should plant native trees or other vegetation near the shore to absorb wind and floods.
    • Confine water overflow into a drainpipe or through an approved discharge point such as a drainage ditch, drywell, gutter, or drainage holding pond.


  • Develop “cool” areas.  To address the projected increase in the number of extreme heat days,
    • Use light-colored (high albedo) paving to reflect more solar radiation.
    • Create shade for buildings by planting vegetation on roofs or trees next to the buildings. This will reduce extreme temperatures found in “heat islands” and reduce air conditioning costs. If possible, shade walls and AC condenser units with vines and shrubs for better cooling performance.


  • Design and install enhanced backup power.  This should go beyond just having a few portable backup emergency generators that you wheel out during emergencies (equipment may be difficult to wheel out during a storm, when you most need the power!). Also, test and ensure that enhanced lighting systems will work during emergencies. Lighting is critical to successful emergency response and building evacuations.


  • Install protection from wind. To address potential wind damage from extreme storms:
    • Address unsecured outdoor items that could become deadly missiles in a high wind situation, such as propane tanks and yard items.
    • Regularly monitor and prune vegetation so that sick or dead limbs do not become windblown.
    • Install covers, shutters, reinforcement, or other protection on doors and windows.


  • Design and install resilient HVAC and water systems.  Raise, protect, and insulate such systems.


  • Enhance building structures.  Ensure that building roofs can withstand high winds and stay stable under potentially larger quantities of rainwater or snow and ice than has been experienced in previous storms. Ensure that building foundations are sound and strengthen structural frames.


  • Develop enhanced emergency plans.  Coordinate with local rescue groups. Know the vulnerable populations in and around the buildings (e.g., employees working in critical sections of the facility; elderly who live nearby) and their needs (transportation, escape routes) during an emergency.

Implementing these recommendations can help any company or building manager lessen the potential catastrophic impacts — lives lost, property damaged, business disrupted — by future extreme storms and weather events. This will not only save the company money in the long-term and reduce risk, but allow “back to normal” operation and stability to be reached sooner.


About the Author

Marc Karell, P.E., CEM, is the owner of Climate Change & Environmental Services, LLC (CCES), a consulting firm specializing in air pollution, climate change, sustainability, and energy services for a wide variety of industrial and corporate clients. CCES has the technical experts to help you prepare for potential disasters and emergencies, as well as to organize an effective climate change or sustainability program and limit greenhouse gas emissions well.


Other EHS Journal Articles by Marc Karell

Sustainability: Reports Show Greater Acceptance

United States: EPA Publishes National Greenhouse Gas Inventory

In Defense of Small EHS Consulting Firms


Photograph: Texas Skyscraper by Martyn E. Jones, Penarth, Vale of Glamorgan, United Kingdom.

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