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Resilient Building Operations in Extreme Weather Conditions

What Building Operators Need to Know When Climate Disaster Strikes the Building

by Jim Newman — If you were managing a building in Lower Manhattan last October, or in Vermont in 2011, or in Texas during the last year, you know that storms and severe weather are an increasingly frequent fact of life. Storms, such as hurricanes and tornados are becoming stronger. Heat waves are becoming longer. Floods are becoming more frequent. To top it all off, the threat of power outages and water shortages are becoming more pronounced.

Our climate, here in North America, is changing in ways that is creating stronger and more frequent severe weather, and building managers need to be ready to handle more common emergency operations. As the world saw after super-storm Sandy in the New York area, keeping buildings running during emergency situations and getting building back up after shutdown is no easy task. Building managers need to be prepared for emergencies and near emergencies.

Current scientific thinking is that the “100 year storm” of the 80’s, or a severe storm that had a 1% chance of coming every year, has a much higher probability of occurring now — more like a 3% change of occurring in a given year. Storms and severe heat waves that your grandparents might have told you about will likely happen several times in your tenure as a building manager. Because of this increased frequency of severe conditions, building managers have a huge role to play in creating resilient buildings and resilient building operations — Buildings that can handle severe conditions and bounce back quickly.

Severe weather conditions create hazards that affect buildings and people. The primary hazards to consider are:

  • Storms, including hurricanes, tornados, and snow storms
  • Prolonged heat waves
  • Flooding
  • Prolonged electricity outages
  • Prolonged drought or water outage
  • Disrupted road access

Weather-caused disasters will happen more frequently each year

Responsible building managers need to be prepared for encountering these hazards much more frequently than in the past. According to the Boston Harbor Association study from 2012, Preparing for the Rising Tide… “Coastal floods presently with a 1% current likelihood of occurring in a given year (i.e., a “100- year storm surge,”) could have a higher than 20% annual likelihood of occurring during coastal storms by the year 2050 and may occur as frequently as high tide sometime near or after year 2100.”

Preparing for the Rising Tides, a report from the Boston Harbor Association, outlines how rising sea level and stronger storm surges will affect properties in Boston along the waterfront. The report (available online) includes a number of specific suggestions for building owners and managers.

Planning Ahead

The key to resilient building operations is planning. This starts with an emergency plan for your building that focuses on hazards you might see (not so many earthquakes in Boston) and looking at the most severe examples of those hazards. Emergency plans should include a list of critical systems in the building, a map of important switches and shut-offs, and a step-by-step plan for closing down the building. An important part of knowing the critical building systems is having a tactical plan for which systems get shut down, in what order. Some systems may be important to keep running under all but the most severe conditions. For example, a number of commercial office buildings in the New York area lost power after Sandy for over a week. With no ventilation systems running and very wet conditions, these buildings developed mold in some of the interiors that had to be cleaned before re-occupancy. A backup generator running low-level ventilation would have prevented this problem.

Emergency plans should include:

  • Critical Systems: Know what systems need to be kept running and which can be shut down. Are there Laboratories in the building? Data centers? Do some tenants have their own back up systems? It is important to know where the key switches and disconnects are in you building.
  • A List of Tenants: Know who is occupying the building and what they have in their space. Just contacting tenants about an impending emergency can be a large task. Phone-email-text contact or warning systems are very handy, saving time and allowing for consistent messages, but if the power is down, you will want a paper phone list with cell numbers, as well.
  • Get Equipment Out of Harm’s Way: Have a list of equipment that should be moved out of harm’s way, and know where problematic spots are in your building. Make sure that the equipment you will need in an emergency is somewhere safe.
  • Preparedness Checklist: Have a checklist of actions that you need to perform to prepare the building for an emergency. Have the list located somewhere that other building operations team members can find it. Make sure to include plans for prolonged power outages and disruptions of water systems.

Several building owners and operators have told stories of lost emergency equipment, swamped backup generating equipment, and even maintenance personnel swimming for their life during super-storm Sandy. Building operators with a plan fared much better than those with no plans or old plans.

This map of the New England coast shows predictions of flood zones from the Sea, Lake, and Overland Surges from Hurricanes (SLOSH) model from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Note how far inland flooding might occur in a high-surge storm, such as Sandy. (Image by Linnean Solutions.)

As your building operations team gets more comfortable with your emergency preparedness process, you may find that some of the actions included in your preparedness action plans might migrate into everyday operations. Actions like keeping more and more important equipment in locations that are not vulnerable to severe weather hazards, and maintaining easy building occupant contact systems are appropriate standard operations procedures.

In the long term, there will be changes to the building infrastructure that you may want to suggest to your building owners. In flood prone or coastal areas, moving electrical and communications rooms out of the basement, while expensive, is highly effective at increasing the ability of those systems to function in emergency situations. Owners might want to consider re-arranging the power-use connections so that a small number of critical systems can run on limited backup power, such as minimal building ventilation and minimal non-emergency lighting. Maybe even investing in solar photovoltaic onsite power generation that can be set up to run some critical systems in an emergency. These are long term, non-operational investments that can have a large impact on the operational capabilities of your building.

Short-term action items for the facilities manager

There are some small actions that building managers have found to be useful—simple actions that can be important when things get bad.

  • Paper Building Plans: Keep a paper copy of the plans for your building somewhere safe. Maybe keep an extra paper copy at your engineer’s office. When a big storm hits and there is no power and you need to figure out how to move electrical connections out of the flooded basement in a hurry, those CAD plans won’t be available.
  • Know Your Contacts at the Utilities: There is no substitute for having a personal relationship with key utility contacts when there is trouble, and everyone wants their attention. Make sure they know you and your building.
  • Know Your Tenant Contacts: There is nothing worse than scrambling to find the right person to call when a storm is about to hit over a weekend. Knowing your tenant contacts and what tenants have in your building makes this much easier. If you run an academic building, know the chain of contact for the labs or offices in your building. Those faculty members will be forever thankful for your warning.

It is not fun to think about the potential hazards and emergency situations that might affect your building. Unfortunately, the hazards from severe weather are increasing in both frequency and strength. Experience from the severe weather situations over the last couple of years has shown that being prepared for severe weather and emergencies can have a large effect on how a building manages through an emergency and how fast it bounces back after one.

Linnean Solutions is on a mission to help organizations reduce their impact on the environment in real and trackable ways. We pursue this mission by giving specific resource-saving advice, and by providing financial and capital planning managers with tools to track and understand the environmental performance of their organizations in real time.

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