Protecting Properties Against Natural Disasters
According to a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), natural disasters fueled by global warming are endangering not only health, but also property and critical infrastructure. Such grim warnings elicit little surprise from brokers who do business in disaster-prone zones, where the threat of extreme weather events affects development, investment, design, and construction. The impacts, which are already significant, are growing along with further climate change.THE NEW STATUS QUO
Ted Konigsberg, SIOR, president of Infinity Commercial Real Estate in Miami Lakes, Fla., lives and works in one of the most disaster-prone zones. “If you had to pick the bullseye for a population threatened by sea-level rise, hurricanes, and other extreme weather events, it would be the southern half of Florida,” he says. Here, porous limestone allows rising saltwater to penetrate building foundations, causing rebar to rust and concrete to crack. Conditions on Miami Beach are even more precarious: As Konigsberg explains, it essentially sits on sand.
This has not escaped the notice of developers and insurers, for whom the 2021 collapse of the Champlain Towers condominium in Surfside was a tragic wake-up call. Konigsberg notes that costs of insurance and construction are increasing “geometrically” and that developers are shifting their attention toward higher-lying areas.
Craig Schwitter, senior partner and chair of the global board at the engineering firm Buro Happold, is seeing marked impacts on insurance and planning from more frequent flooding, hurricanes, and extreme rainstorms in many regions of the U.S. He describes flood protection insurance as a “national catastrophe,” pointing out that in many parts of the country flood insurance is no longer available.MITIGATION VERSUS PREVENTION
Schwitter strives to avoid doom and gloom, but he encourages his clients to focus on adaptation alongside prevention. As the IPCC makes clear, in many cases the window of opportunity for prevention has passed: The report states that multiple climate hazards over the next two decades are “unavoidable.” For this reason, some municipalities are aiming for mitigation.
One approach is the institution of stricter building codes. Robert Cleary, SIOR, senior vice president at Colliers in Boston, reports that the city has enacted many guidelines with resiliency in mind. For example, it established a developer checklist for new construction and renovation. The checklist incorporates strategies to address greenhouse gas emissions, extreme heat, extreme precipitation, and sea-level rise.
Not all cities are as prepared as Boston, however. “It has been years or decades since most cities revamped their building/zoning codes and ordinances,” says Geoffrey Kasselman, SIOR, senior vice president of CRG/Clayco in Chicago. “Such revamped codes and ordinances could go a long way towards addressing the risks of inevitable climate change on the built environment everywhere.”
The West Coast’s seismic codes provide a useful model. These have led to resilient infrastructure designed to withstand earthquakes. Many real estate insiders would welcome a similar level of stringency for extreme flooding. “We probably have the strictest building code in the United States because we changed it after Hurricane Andrew,” says Konigsberg, commenting about Florida. “With that said, for this area, it’s still not enough.”
While governmental entities slowly adjust their codes, the building industry is introducing alternative construction techniques, stronger materials, and designs that take resiliency into account. New buildings in New York and Boston, for instance, house mechanical equipment on higher floors instead of in the traditional basement locations. Superstorm Sandy was New York City’s wake-up call, says Schwitter, who recalls that many buildings in downtown Manhattan lost power for months because their electrical equipment was housed on sub-grade levels.
Kasselman expects to see more and more reinforced foundations and footings, redundant power services, stilts or lifts, enhanced fire protection, use of alternative materials in the construction process, large on-site shelters, early detection and warning systems, and extensive data sensors in high-risk areas. Cleary anticipates growing interest in protective methods like structural tie-downs to mitigate buoyancy, continuous waterproofing, ramped entry configurations, and rapidly deployable flood barriers around buildings.
"The amount of capital investment to completely protect against a climate emergency or climate disaster is almost prohibitively expensive."
Costs associated with these techniques might frighten developers with shorter-term outlooks. “The amount of capital investment to completely protect against a climate emergency or climate disaster is almost prohibitively expensive,” says Schwitter.
For this reason, some developers aim for infrastructure operations to bounce back after a flood rather than paying high fees to completely wall off a building or raise it off the ground. “You might get flow-through damage, sediment, and mud, but by prioritizing resiliency you can at least ensure that your systems are back up and running within a short period of time,” he suggests.
Konigsberg concurs that shorter-term outlooks dissuade developers from the more costly, but more protective approaches. He points to the availability of epoxy-coated rebar, galvanized rebar, glass-reinforced fiber rebar, and stainless-steel rebar, all of which are far more rust-proof than standard rebar. Also available are new types of concrete with water-resistant formulations. These products are effective, but expensive. Konigsberg warns: “You need to have a long horizon for the investment if you’re going to put this additional cost into it—unless it’s mandated by building code. And it’s not yet.”PROGRESS
The prospects are not completely bleak. Some developers are gravitating toward longer-term holds, which encourage more upfront investment in disaster mitigation. Others are aiming for a lower carbon footprint, thus helping to ameliorate climate change itself.
If legislation is the stick, the carrots are financial incentives: Kasselman observes that many building owners are taking advantage of what he calls “environmental capital,” where funds are available to those who demonstrate leadership in sustainability. Cleary reports that “the comparative matrix for leasing now includes climate, wellness, and amenities as a major element in decision-making.” Schwitter says that environmental, social, and governmental (ESG) mandates are critical to encouraging efforts to decarbonize, especially among government agencies and institutions of higher education.
"Passing the buck to a future generation is no longer a viable option."
Brokers have a role to play in supporting decarbonization efforts. “The real estate industry is a major contributor to carbon emissions and must act now to help lead the conversation and implement solutions wherever and whenever possible,” states Kasselman. “Everything else, no matter how seemingly important or urgent in the moment, is ultimately inferior to an existential crisis like climate change and its related impacts on whole ecosystems. Passing the buck to a future generation is no longer a viable option.”
This article was sponsored by the SIOR Foundation - Promoting and sponsoring initiatives that educate, enhance, and expand the commercial real estate community. The SIOR Foundation is a 501(c)(3) not-forprofit organization. All contributions are tax deductible to the extent of the law.
Robert Cleary, SIOR
Geoffrey Kasselman, SIOR
Ted Konigsberg, SIOR