Building with Resilient Design Is a Worthwhile Investment

As yet another hurricane season begins, MIT scientists are calculating the long-term value of investing in resilient design.

With hurricane season upon us, an expert at MIT offers insights into the value of investing in what he calls hazard-resistant construction or resilient design. In an interview with U.S. News & World Report, Jeremy Gregory, a research scientist with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, looks at the benefits of building structures that can better weather a major storm and concludes that, “While it may be pricier upfront, it can pay off in the long run.”

Gregory, who is also executive director of MIT’s Concrete Sustainability Hub believes that being proactive about hazard mitigation and building structures for the long term that are resilient to extreme weather events is not only critical for saving lives but is also a cost-effective investment.

Waves crash over a seawall from Biscayne Bay as Hurricane Irma passes by, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

As communities continue to rebuild from the devastating damage wrought by hurricanes in recent years, there is more focus on resilient building materials and designs that can mitigate future damage. It is estimated that a record $309.5 billion in disaster costs were incurred by the U.S. last year due to hurricane’s Harvey, Irma and Maria. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has recently announced that 2018 doesn’t promise to be much better hurricane-wise. They believe the 2018 season “has a 75 percent chance of being near- or above-normal, and that one to four major hurricanes may develop”.

At MIT, scientists are evaluating the cost of resilient building using a life-cycle approach that includes the costs of doing initial construction, maintenance throughout the life of the building, energy consumption, and an estimate of hazard repairs (i.e. costs that might be sustained due to hurricanes).  This is important, Gregory says, in calculating what the payback is on hazard-resistant construction.  “Most often, this kind of construction costs more upfront, but there are paybacks for it over the long run,” he says.

As major natural disasters become more frequent, safety and public health experts say civic leaders should treat these severe weather events as the new “norm” and prioritize disaster resilience in community planning and rebuilding. According to the National Institute of Building Sciences,  every pre-emptive dollar spent on mitigation can save approximately $6 in future disaster losses.

A destroyed apartment complex in Rockport, Texas after Hurricane Harvey passed through in 2017.

Because there aren’t always incentives for developers to take life-cycle costs into perspective, government needs to play a role in encouraging these practices. To help, MIT has developed an online tool called the BEMP (Break-Even Mitigation Percent) which calculates how much can building owners can invest in mitigation and still break even over the lifetime of the building. “The whole idea is to give people a ballpark figure of how much additional costs are associated with mitigation,” says Gregory.


Using Design to Address Sea-Level Rise

The architectural, engineering and construction industries are looking at ways to mitigate sea level rise and climate change in coastal communities.

People love being near the water — beach front homes, offices on the Bayfront, cultural and entertainment centers on an ocean or lakeside. The water’s edge is always alluring. In fact, 40% of today’s U.S. population lives on or near the water

Unfortunately, as recent climate-change experts point out, nature seems to have other ideas. What is now perched on the water in many areas, will likely be under water in the foreseeable future.

Even if carbon emission targets and other benchmarks set at the historic Paris Agreement in 2015 are met, sea levels will likely rise 20 inches by 2100. If we continue emitting greenhouse gases, it is more likely to be a 29-inch rise. And, according to a January, 2017 report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, some US coastal areas, will experience as much as a 6-foot rise in sea levels by 2100.

If unaddressed, this phenomenon poses an unprecedented human and economic threat. Already, current sea level rise has contributed to more damage in extreme weather events such as Superstorm Sandy, causing massive flooding and infrastructure damage.

Mitigating the Effects of Sea Level Rise

While government and community agencies are now addressing sea level rise issues in coastal areas with plans for levies and sea walls and other means of circumventing water rise, the architectural and engineering community has begun to seriously develop strategies and tactics as well.

Fighting sea level rise from a design perspective boils down to either keeping the water out or designing around it.  Preserving views and water access and maintaining aesthetically pleasing design however can be challenging under the circumstances.

For new and/or existing buildings, resilient design is critical. Using materials that protect buildings from wind and water damage, even elevating buildings above water are certainly valid strategies for addressing sea level rise, but what about entire streets or neighborhoods that are submerged?

As Construction Dive points out, architects, engineers and contractors need to understand the issues and be on the forefront of advocating for design that anticipates and counters potential rising waters on our coasts.