Billion-dollar headlines dominated newscasts in 2017. Hurricanes Irma, Maria and Harvey inflicted damage totaling $65 billion, $102 billion and $198 billion respectively. Wildfires in Northern California wrought $9.4 billion in damage, a June hailstorm in Minnesota cost $2.5 billion, drought in the Dakotas and Montana cost another $2.5 billion, and the list of weather disasters exacerbated by climate change continues from there.
These damagers are expensive and property owners all through the country (and far beyond the disaster zones) are feeling that squeeze. More severe storms, more intense heat and more frequent or widespread floods are compelling property owners, insurance companies, lenders, investors, municipal regulators and others to devote more attention to how to make buildings and communities more resilient.
“We have to think about how to design buildings for the next generation,” said Jay Wilson, Green Building Program analyst for the District of Columbia’s Department of Energy and Environment. Wilson spoke at the “Climate Resilience Adaptations and Strategies” session at CRE.Converge 2018.
A two-year study, “Climate Ready DC,” began to analyze the probable impacts of climate change on the region, assess vulnerabilities within Washington, D.C., and identify and prioritize solutions.
For example, analysts expect that severe storms that are currently classified as 100-year storms will become much more common, occurring every 25 years by 2050 and every 15 years by 2080. These extreme rain events would leave the District vulnerable to increased flooding and property damage, and put residents, particularly vulnerable populations, at risk. That realization prompted District officials and developers to create a plan to enhance flood protection around Buzzard Point – a massive, 6,000-home development on land rimmed by the Anacostia and Potomac rivers. The plan calls for the construction of an 18-foot-high, vegetated berm around the point which would become a living shoreline and safeguard the area from floods.
At Boston Properties, “we are integrating climate preparedness into all new development and acquisition decisions,” said Ben Myers, the company’s director of sustainability.
Beyond assessing sites for their vulnerability to severe storm impact, sea level rise or other harsh conditions, Boston Properties is looking to elevate ground floors and critical equipment above base flood level, install power generation and storage capacity on site, construct “floodable first floors” that could quickly become functional again after being inundated, and include other passive survivability features in buildings. Those could include natural ventilation systems that both save energy and keep buildings habitable during a summertime power outage.
On some properties, Boston Properties is installing additional features, such as the Aqua Fence – a temporary barrier that can keep floodwaters out of a building’s ground floor.
Addressing climate resiliency has also become a pressing issue in long-held buildings, said David Borchardt, vice president of development at Lerner Enterprises. Bouts of extreme temperatures mean that some existing buildings no longer have sufficient heating or cooling capacity, and such extreme-weather days are projected to become more common. The District of Columbia study predicted that the number of days with a heat index exceeding 95 degrees is expected to rise from 30 per year as a historic average to 50 per year by the 2020s and to 80 per year by the 2050s.
Climate change is also injecting occasional surprises into development projects. Borchardt said his company had just completed a multifamily project when its insurance company advised that the property had unexpectedly been listed as flood plain property following a FEMA re-evaluation. “Suddenly, the insurance company told us we have to take some mitigation measures,” he said.
Increasingly, the resilience of buildings is being closely analyzed by insurance companies, lenders, investors, buyers and other stakeholders. Assessments of resilience and the risks faced by individual properties are also becoming more standardized. GRESB has created a benchmark for the resilience of real estate assets and their ability to survive in the face of environmental and social stressors. Meanwhile, the Task Force on Climate Related Financial Disclosures is developing protocols for voluntary, consistent, climate-related financial risk disclosures.
Linda Strowbridge is a freelance business writer based in Baltimore, MD. A long-time journalist in Canada and the U.S., Linda now writes extensively about the built environment, economic development, green business and the insights of business leaders.