Retrofits that Consider Building Resilience and Energy Efficiency Capture Multiple Benefits

Hardly a day goes by that a news story doesn’t cover a disaster event somewhere in the world. The U.S. has certainly had its share of disasters recently. In 2017, there were 16 disasters costing $1 billion or more—totaling over $300 billion in damages. In 2018 there were 14 such disasters. Already in 2019, before the start of hurricane and wildfire seasons, two such events have occurred. In fact, since 1980 the U.S. has experienced 246 disasters causing $1 billion damages or more, for a total impact exceeding $1.6 trillion, per the Washington, D.C.-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The impacts of such events are felt throughout the community. Lives are disrupted as the community works toward recovery. Building owners are particularly impacted. Damaged buildings can trigger costly repairs and lost revenues as tenants must relocate (or worse, close up shop completely). Research has shown that following a disaster, roughly 40 to 60 percent of small businesses never reopen and 90 percent fail within a year if they can’t resume operations within five days. Keeping businesses open supports a community’s ability to “bounce back”—a key component of what it means to be resilient.

Research has shown that, following a disaster, roughly
40 to 60 percent of small businesses never reopen and 90 percent fail within a year
if they can’t resume operations within five days. INFOGRAPHIC: FEMA/Peter Herrick Jr.

Although a building owner may not fully recognize his or her disaster risks (and there are few places without some risk), one thing is certain, operating costs—particularly energy—are an ongoing burden. Fortunately, there are opportunities to “kill two birds with one stone.” An expanding body of research is examining the ability to capture both energy efficiency and resilience benefits, or co-benefits, through the application of certain measures. This focus on the energy/resilience nexus provides new avenues for retrofits that capture multiple benefits.

Retrofits at the Energy/ Resilience Nexus

As building owners undertake retrofit activities, investments in mitigation can provide multiple returns. Some insurers may recognize the protections provided by resilience measures in the form of premium reductions; tenants or future buyers may place increased value on resilient properties (particularly when they are aware of such enhancements); and owners and tenants may save on energy costs. Updating an existing building to comply with provisions of the most recent edition of an energy code, like the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), can help deliver significant energy savings.

Increased energy efficiency in general when coupled with provisions for onsite electricity generation (whether through generators, CHP, or onsite renewables and storage) can extend the supply of onsite power generation by reducing the overall energy needs to provide essential functions. This could allow for a reduction in fuel storage needs or allow for longer operations without grid-provided electricity. Such a holistic strategy may also have benefits in non-hazard conditions, allowing increased participation in demand-response programs or reducing peak loads.

Either following a disaster event or in times of extreme heat or cold events, loss of power or reductions in service can impact the ability of a facility to remain safe for occupancy. The concept of passive survivability means that a facility continues to provide the services necessary (particularly air and thermal quality and water and sewage services) despite a loss in power.
A study by the Urban Green Council and Atelier Ten, both of New York, found that in New York City buildings, during a winter blackout, a typical high-rise apartment would drop to 45 F within three days and continue to fall. In a summer blackout, a typical high-rise apartment would reach 95 F by the fourth day and peak at over 100 F. Strategies applicable to building retrofits can help keep temperature changes more gradual. Increased insulation, reducing air leakage (in conjunction with a proper pas- sive ventilation strategy) and operable windows can all be part of a passive survivability strategy. Proper use of daylighting and avoiding blocking light that could reach into spaces could also make a facility more comfortable during a blackout.

Attention to detail on sealing and insulation can also limit the potential for rot, mold and mildew following extreme temperatures or some water-related events. Heat, air and moisture transfer can all contribute to indoor environmental quality issues.

About the Author

Ryan M. Colker, J.D., CAE
Ryan M. Colker, J.D., CAE, serves as vice president of innovation at the International Code Council where he identifies emerging issues in the building industry, including how new technologies can be leveraged by codes and standards. Colker also is the executive director of the Alliance for National & Community Resilience (ANCR), Washington, D.C. ANCR is developing benchmarks to support communities in understanding their current resilience and identifying opportunities to improve.

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