Over the past year, the world witnessed the growing impacts of climate change. Wildfires raged across 13 American states and Western Canada. Extreme flooding ravaged Germany, Belgium, China, France and Switzerland, while other countries such as Sweden and Finland experienced record heat. As if that wasn’t enough, the journal Nature published a study about a phenomenon called “moon wobble” that could cause coastal flooding “every day or two.” Oh, and have you heard about heat domes?
The world is learning how important resilient built environments are and what role they play in combating climate change. Building resilience is critical for the climate, people and economies and also plays a significant role in the architecture, engineering and construction industry.
Simply put, resilient construction means creating infrastructure or buildings that allow for ongoing continuity when an incident happens – say, extreme weather or a public health event like a pandemic. Resilient buildings can also prevent or minimize the need to rebuild by reducing damage, and it can proactively do good by accelerating adaptation to and mitigation of the impacts of climate change.
Take the economic impacts: Building community resiliency adds value, making it much more competitive for economic development. Or, think about the public health benefits of a facility that can provide cooling for community members during an extreme heatwave. As climate change exacerbates weather events, more building owners and communities are realizing it makes sense, financial and otherwise, to invest in resiliency when planning new infrastructure.
General contractors such as PCL have a role to play. We help coordinate teams of owners, consultants, building product manufacturers, engineers and trade contractors to deliver on the project’s goals. When resiliency is one of those goals, the project requires a deep level of commitment and understanding from the general contractor – not just to correctly interpret those goals, but to find the most impactful and cost-effective ways to deliver them.
Further, we bring a lot to the table in terms of subject matter expertise and building science. PCL has in-house experts in areas such as building envelope, mechanical and electrical, and elevating devices. As engineering and design standards adapt to climate change, these experts work hand in hand with a project’s consulting engineers to determine the best solutions to deliver high-performance buildings. This is where PCL’s vast experience comes in handy; for over 100 years, we’ve observed how buildings respond to weather events and emergencies of various types that affect building performance.
In 2019, for example, PCL contributed to a research paper about elevator flood resilience. Our director of elevating devices provided relevant and recent knowledge of best practices to this paper, which guides building owners on how to keep their elevators and lifts operational during flood events.
After Alberta’s historic floods in 2013, PCL was hired to complete the Calgary Zoo Flood Mitigation project. We built a flood wall, essentially creating a giant bathtub around the zoo to remove any water inside. The benefits went beyond the zoo: the hydrogeological study that informed the design also advanced the City’s understanding of groundwater flow and underground flooding, enhancing future flood mitigation planning throughout Calgary.
A general contractor’s job is to provide clients with the quality solutions they need. Our clients expect us to meet sustainability and healthy building standards while finding solutions beyond LEED, Passive House and net zero. Resilient construction is rapidly gaining attention among our clients. While some clients have yet to include design for resiliency criteria on their projects, many are considering options to do so as awareness continues to grow. We expect building resiliency to be a key design factor moving forward. We must anticipate these changing requirements and adapt as needed, so we can provide the expertise clients are looking for and help them deliver future-proof buildings and infrastructure.
Resiliency is a growing need for our partners in every sector. In the buildings sector, clients will increasingly expect buildings to provide services through events such as earthquakes or extreme heat. Communities depend on the continuity of water and wastewater systems, so our clients in the civil sector have a natural connection to resiliency planning. There are even opportunities in the industrial sector, where energy projects such as pipelines or power plants must be able to better endure climate stresses.
I believe building resiliency will increasingly be a topic of growing focus – and greater investment. Owners are thinking deeply about how to plan for resiliency and disaster mitigation, which means they will consider new design approaches, novel materials and different equipment. For example, I expect to see more interest in distributed renewable energy for providing local power and emergency backup power. This should continue to spur interest in renewables and drive costs further downward.
When clients understand the long-term value of building resiliency, they analyze their life cycle costs differently. Just as our climate is changing, the way we look at investments in resilient built environments will change, too. Given our position in the industry, general contractors have an opportunity – and a responsibility – to help lead the way.