By JIQIU (JQ) YUAN, PhD, PE, Project Manager, and RYAN M. COLKER, JD, Presidential Advisor, National Institute of Building Sciences

Natural disasters—hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, wildfires—are inevitable. Rather than sit idly by, many communities, business owners, and policy-makers are being proactive, embracing the adage that, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Through planning, smart investment, and a holistic approach, they are taking steps to soften the blow from natural disasters and recover more quickly.

In 2014, more than three dozen organizations responsible for the design, construction, and operation of buildings, homes, transportation systems, landscapes, and public spaces, including ASHRAE, the U.S. Green Building Council, the National Fire Protection Association, Building Owners and Managers Association International, and the International Facility Management Association, came together to address the issue of resilience. In their Industry Statement on Resilience, they define resilience as “the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from, and more successfully adapt to adverse events.”

In 2005, the National Institute of Building Sciences’ Multihazard Mitigation Council (MMC) published “Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves: An Independent Study to Assess the Future Savings From Mitigation Activities,” a Federal Emergency Management Agency- (FEMA-) commissioned report demonstrating that for every public dollar spent on mitigation, society saves $4. Subsequent studies have confirmed that finding. A 2016 study by the Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, “Economic Effectiveness of Implementing a Statewide Building Code: The Case of Florida,” found investing in mitigation exceeds the MMC’s 4:1 benefit-cost ratio. The study found that from 2001 to 2010, windstorm losses in Florida, which adopted and implemented one of the strictest building codes in the nation in 2002, fell by up to 72 percent. The authors concluded that every dollar spent on mitigation avoided $4.80 in losses, with a payback period for the investment in stronger codes estimated at approximately 10 years in a state at high risk for severe windstorms.

While the benefits of investing in resilience are proven, there has been a significant gap between communities’ resilience preparedness and the frequency and intensity of disasters. The number of presidential declarations of disasters has been climbing, as has the number of disasters causing over $1 billion in damages. Meanwhile, from 2005 to 2014, Congressional appropriations for FEMA pre-disaster-mitigation (PDM) grants averaged just $120 million a year, compared with the $7.2 billion spent on recovery assistance. In 2015, FEMA requested $400 million for PDM, but received only $81 million.1

In the end, no matter how a community prioritizes resilience, unless consumers, including property owners, building operators, and residents, believe they will incur an advantage for their investment, little will happen. While technical research has identified effective mitigation measures, a connection between engineering solutions and economic motivation is needed. A ground-breaking report and addendum recently released by the MMC and the National Institute of Building Sciences’ Council on Finance, Insurance and Real Estate identifies the basis for a cost-effective resilience strategy through a holistic and integrated set of public, private, and hybrid programs capturing opportunities available through mortgages and loans, insurance, finance, tax incentives and credits, grants, regulations, and enhanced building codes. Meanwhile, the MMC, with support from federal agencies and private-sector organizations, including the International Code Council and the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, is conducting an update to and expansion of its 2005 study on the value of investing in mitigation.

Despite a decades-long focus on hazard mitigation and reducing disaster losses, the federal and state governments continue to be burdened with the lion’s share of responsibility for absorbing local losses and restoring communities following a disaster. It is time for all stakeholders to work collaboratively toward the implementation of mitigation strategies and to get involved in encouraging local investment in resilience to help build a national resilience economy.

Achieving resilience at the community scale also requires collaboration across all disciplines engaged in the design, construction, and operation of buildings and infrastructure. Architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) professionals, including HVAC experts, provide an important perspective on how resilience strategies can be implemented and what measures can be employed practically. Working with building owners and regulators, HVAC professionals can help to identify the most cost-effective strategies to meet community and owner expectations.

With natural-hazard events expected to grow in frequency and impact, the building industry increasingly will be looked to for solutions. AEC professionals must educate themselves on current strategies for resilience (e.g., elevating critical equipment and systems to reduce the risk of flood hazards and securing piping and HVAC equipment for high winds and earthquakes) and the benefits of their implementation and then share that knowledge with their clients. By understanding the long-term value of investing in resilience strategies—and being able to convey that to clients—HVAC professionals can help to support expanded retrofit opportunities and show their interest in safeguarding the long-term viability of their projects, clients, and communities.

  1. Miller, T.R. (2016, August 4). Build disaster-proof homes before storms strike, not afterward. The Conversation. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/Disaster_Proof