OUR PLANET’S CHANGING WEATHER PATTERNS ARE PROMPTING MYRIAD INDUSTRIES – CONSTRUCTION INCLUDED – TO DO THINGS DIFFERENTLY
BY AMY DREW THOMPSON
At the time of this writing, a disturbance called Invest96L was making its way through the Atlantic, southeast of Barbados. Risk of further development was low, but still possible. Folks in the Virgin Islands were on alert.
In the Pacific, there were high-surf warnings in Hawaii as Tropical Storm Flossie approached the islands. Two other named storms in varying degrees – Gil and Erick – were also swirling on that side of the globe. In California, wildfires had an epic year. In July, Tropical Storm Barry dumped tons of rain on New Orleans and surging water engulfed roads in Virginia and Washington, D.C., prompting a “flash flood emergency,” a shrill head’s-up from their more typical “flash flood warnings.”
Professionals in the realm of weather science say such occurrences will continue and likely increase in frequency. Which means construction professionals are looking to up their game, raising the resiliency ratings on everything from infrastructure projects to buildings – homes, schools, hospitals and the like.
“Resilience,” says Melinda Tomaino, director, environmental services, for AGC of America, “is commonly defined as the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from, and more successfully adapt to adverse events … including natural disasters such as wildfires, prolonged drought, flooding, extreme temperatures, earthquakes, tornadoes or high winds and superstorms.” This is the language adopted on an Industry Statement on Resilience, which AGC signed in 2014.
It could also include industrial events, such as power grid failures.
As such, strategies for resilience – constructors of all shades are finding – are not one-size-fits-all.
Among the biggest challenges, says Christopher Webb, a presenter at AGC’s Construction Safety, Health + Environmental Conference in July, is that the historical rules of thumb that have been used – for ages – to size and plan projects are becoming less valid.
Webb is a principal engineer for Seattle-based Herrera Environmental Consultants, engineers and scientists who work in the realms of green infrastructure, natural systems and sustainability.
“Resilience is about designing and planning systems that maintain function or recover quickly through change,” he says.
Change can be short-term (terrorist attacks, earthquakes) or longterm (effects of climate change).
“Sea-level rise, changes in temperature – these things will stress infrastructure systems.”
In the past, folks like Webb have built models for things such as strong water flow using historic precipitation records that track frequency, intensity and duration of storms or temperature patterns. July 2019 – when heatwaves struck on both sides of the planet – was being touted as “the hottest July in recorded history” at press time, proof enough Webb’s assertion, “these models are getting old – fast,” is accurate.
“The approaches that contractors and designers have historically used will need to be examined,” he says. “And the impacts of climate change are not going to be uniform; it will be different in different places.”
That means dry places will likely become drier, wet places wetter.
“And storms will be a lot more intense when they do come, no matter where you are. Contractors are going to have to adapt to this new normal, thinking more about not only how they build, but how they manage their jobsites.”
This can mean planning for extra pumps and extra generators in the face of flooding or power grid failure or laying things out in ways that keep the site safe where a wind event might happen.
“We have clients asking us to run wind load scenarios for conditions that way surpass code because we all know this is going to be a concern 30 or 50 years from now,” says Julia Gisewite, director of sustainability for Turner Construction, a member of multiple AGC chapters. “We’re not doing building or energy modeling for the current weather conditions or those expected five years out … we’re doing things that will really change the performance of what we currently use.”
There is deeper scrutinization of materials in use today, and what can be done to make them better. What’s also changing, says Gisewite, is the way things are handled while the job is in progress.
With conditions getting more extreme everywhere, she notes, “one of the things we look at as a contractor is what this means for our workforce.”
Resiliency, she says, also means preparing team members for the environments they are and will be facing, day in and day out.
“Are we providing them with the health and wellness needs that will enable their continued productivity? Their wellbeing is important – in particular in extreme temperature conditions.”
Much like the wet/dry extremes scientists predict will become the norm, Gisewite notes that temperatures are likely to do the same.
“It’s something we’re working on internally – not just the sustainability group, but hand in hand with the safety department.”
WHERE EVERYONE AGREES….
Although vast plans for infrastructure spending – to the tune of $2 trillion – were approved earlier this year, Tomaino says contractors aren’t yet sure what that will mean for specific highway, railroad, bridge and other projects.
“People across the country have been dealing with resiliency differently,” she says, and recommends AGC members stay current. “Be a part of the local code process and when issues of resiliency, green building, sustainability come up – folks are going to have to participate at that local level.”
Tomaino adds that our nation’s infrastructure has deteriorated to such a degree that resiliency in construction is an imperative that transcends the climate change discussion.
“I think those words can politically charge the debate and turn it into a tug of war between two sides on what should really be a nonpartisan issue: infrastructure.”
Following events such as Superstorm Sandy, she notes, it is helpful to look at where the worst damage occurred.
“It was the oldest infrastructure, out-of-date buildings, that fared much, much worse than those which had been built to code. So, oftentimes there appears to be a desire – and it could be philosophical – to have a uniform approach, to throw everything we have at every structure, when in many cases we just need to make sure what we have is up to par.”
This doesn’t negate the special needs of communities that deal with things like flooding or fire or windstorms on a regular basis, she notes.
COMMUNICATION AND CARE
Construction companies – moreover their employees – are part of these communities, too. And a factor where ‘resiliency’ has multiple meanings. One facet is recovery, and in this case – of its workforce.
“When Hurricane Harvey came through Houston, and all our team members were sent home, one of the largest challenges in bringing things back online was simply being able to get in touch with our staff, our trade partners, making sure people had what they needed,” Gisewite explains.
Having a process in place that strengthens and aids communication is key. Planning, says Turner Vice President Chris Mc Fadden, is something on which the company is focusing.
“We certainly have crisis lines and emergency plans in place that help us respond and recover, but one of the things we’re doing more of is practicing,” he says. “The first thing we look at is people: Are our people safe? Are their families safe? That’s No. 1, always.”
He recalls his own childhood and how pertinent information was shared – hearing about snow days on the radio, the idea of phone trees so that families could spread the word, and how this has evolved into text messaging from schools.
“But in these new situations, it’s a two-way street. We want to know our employees are safe. We also want to be sure they reach back to us and let us know they’re okay, or if they need assistance, or if there’s flooding or a fire in their neighborhood. We’re taking active steps toward building a more robust two-way system, so there’s a better connection amongst our people.”
DRIVERS: FROM INNOVATION TO OWNERS
Webb’s expertise falls squarely in the realm of water, and he feels confident in saying that contractors who work on water infrastructure – this includes highways, where runoff is always front-of-mind – will be seeing projects take on different characteristics than what they’ve seen in the past. More complex. Greener, or an increasing combination of gray and green at the least.
“Resilience is commonly defined as the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from, and more successfully adapt to adverse events.”
Melinda Tomaino, director, environmental services, AGC of America
“We’ll see this more and more on your typical drainage or even wastewater projects, because the legacy systems we use in our cities are not at all built to deal with the changes we’re seeing. Some of these systems were built in the 1920s – they’re very inadequate – and it’s very, very expensive to change them out.”
As such, the norms for such projects will continue to evolve. Savvy contractors who get onboard now will be able to run the board when it comes to rain gardens, water retention, permeable pavement, rainwater collection and managing runoff.
“Green infrastructure,” notes Webb, “should be required reading for contractors,” he notes, “as it has moved from a fringe or emerging technology to being recognized as the workhorse of stormwater management for highways or cities, even, which now have to live under Clean Water Act permits that drive requirements.”
Having baseline requirements is clearly essential – and experience has taught builders to move mechanical systems out of the basements – but what’s better? Going above and beyond.
Take the Tata Innovation Center at Cornell Tech, for example. When Turner was building this 240,000-square-foot edifice on New York City’s Roosevelt Island, future sea levels, rising waters, became a part of the project.
“It was built seven feet higher than was originally planned,” says McFadden.
Resiliency may be a newer buzz word, but it’s nothing new for construction – or Turner, he notes – citing the progress back at the turn of the century, when wooden buildings, plagued by fires, became safer and more resilient as new materials emerged. The problems may be different, but the solutions are still based in resiliency.
“We’re seeing this more and more frequently – people are looking at climate change, and weather events, and the frequency and severity of them, and institutional clients, which are the bulk of our work. Their intent is to be in these spaces for 30, 50 or 100 years. They are considering the prognosis for this major investment they’re making in the future of their organization, be it a school, hospital, corporate client – they’re buying for the long term and building for the long term.”