By {{Article.AuthorName}} | {{Article.PublicationDate.slice(6, -2) | date:'EEEE, MMMM d, y'}}
{{TotalFavorites}} Favorite{{TotalFavorites>1? 's' : ''}}

Weather-related disasters have increased fivefold in the last 50 years, according to a 2021 report published by the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization. And the number of tornadoes, floods, wildfires and other natural catastrophes is projected to continue climbing into the foreseeable future.

While the highest death tolls from climate-related disasters have been found in developing countries, the United States has incurred the biggest economic losses, including suffering the five costliest disasters over the past two decades: Hurricane Katrina (2005), Superstorm Sandy (2012) and Hurricanes Harvey, Maria and Irma (all 2017). Katrina alone killed more than 1,800 people and caused $172.5 billion in damage. As of presstime, Hurricane Fiona had recently hit Puerto Rico, killing at least 25 people and knocking out power for nearly all 3.3 million residents, before making its way up to Canada’s Eastern Shore, where it caused an estimated $2 billion in damage. Barely a week later, Hurricane Ian made landfall in Florida as a Category 4 storm with 150-mph winds, causing catastrophic damage, then cut up the East Coast to lash South Carolina; fatalities were estimated at 90, with nearly $50 billion in damage.

As the industry that builds and, then, rebuilds post-disaster, construction has a critical role to play in responding to climate change. With that responsibility in mind, Construction Executive has assembled a roundtable of industry experts to discuss the impact of climate-related disasters, how to plan for future events and what can be done now to lessen their impact:

  • Jim Arabia, Vice President of Marketing, BigRentz
  • John H. Baker III, Chief Executive Officer, Thompson Engineering
  • Garret Gray, Insurance President, CoreLogic
  • Deb Noller, Chief Executive Officer, Switch Automation
  • Joel Obillo, Head of Sales and Marketing, Enel North America

Jim Arabia: Generally speaking, when a disaster occurs, a local economy gets disrupted. That means supply movement, labor and production all get stalled, and that is felt by the commercial construction industry, in a ripple effect, to varying degrees. Yet some economists point out that destruction caused by natural disasters spurs economic growth, because construction companies are busy rebuilding improved infrastructure which, in turn, creates long-term economic benefits.

We know that the International Renewable Energy Agency reports that jobs that help mitigate and adapt to climate change are on the rise and that in 2021, there were well over 4.1 million jobs in this area.

Deb Noller: Climate change is not just one event. It’s decades of event upon event. It’s flooding, fire, drought, tornadoes and hurricanes. There is no way that you can predict or know what the seasons are going to look like over the next few years.

We have three banks as clients, and they are dealing with increased hurricanes, snowstorms and blizzards. There’s no way that you can manage 5,000 Walmarts or 13,000 Starbucks stores when you have these extreme weather events that affect whole areas of the country. I don’t think it’s sustainable to have that manually managed going forward as these events become more and more prevalent.

Garret Gray: When areas get colder than normal, such as Texas in February of 2021, where the building codes weren’t designed to have these cold freezes, they don’t insulate pipes the same way they might do in, say, Minnesota. And then you have more and more pipes burst more often as climate affects weather. So, you’ve got mass losses or just individual losses at a higher frequency. 


Arabia: There is no guarantee that any structure will survive a major disaster, but there are excellent developments in construction that make buildings fire-, earthquake- and natural-disaster-resistant. Resilience requires implementation of the best and latest technology, knowledge of the most appropriate materials to use and proficient structural engineering to combat the relevant challenges. It’s advisable for any new construction anywhere to build with resiliency in mind, and, indeed, that is actually the law in most places.

Noller: Resiliency means different things to different people. When I think about real estate, the entire industry is built around the ability to manage risk so that the whole real-estate industry, from investors to contractors to owners, is managing risk. Climate change, and the pandemic to a huge extent, just threw the curtain open on just how much a “black swan” event can blow up that risk management. So, when I think about resiliency, I think, “how is real estate going to stay relevant in this changing world?”

John H. Baker III: We always begin project discussions around resiliency with owners at the very beginning of a project. Some owners recognize the long-term benefits of using resilient designs or products and are willing to pay for them; others don’t. It’s much easier and more efficient to incorporate options for resiliency in the early phase of programming and design development than it is to attempt to add those features later during project development.

Oftentimes, there are compromises to be considered. Take a fishing pier, for example, on the Gulf of Mexico. Building the pier and deck structure out of the high-energy wave zone would contribute to the long-term resiliency of the project. Depending on which category storm event you are designing for (owner’s call), the design might require the deck elevation to be 25 to 30 feet above the water’s surface. That’s hardly conducive to pier fishing, which is the primary purpose of the project. So, maybe the deck level is lowered with the addition of blow-out decking panels which, when dislodged, would remove a significant load from the structure, making it more resilient in storm events.


Joel Obillo: Technological innovations and economies of scale continue to drive down cost and increase accessibility. Modern energy technologies, such as demand response and microgrids, save money through optimized operations and increased efficiency in equipment, energy usage, maintenance and power consumption.

Arabia: Something incredible that’s happening in Europe and Asia is the planning for floating cities that can rise with the tides, desalinate and recycle water. We also see companies creating 3D-printed houses. A company called Vulcan is able to build structures up to 3,000 square feet to meet the requirements of the International Building Code that can last as long as standard concrete-masonry-unit buildings, making them stand up to extreme weather. They’re building a community in Austin, Texas.

I think the building industry will work on improvements to the already very good methods in place for resisting natural disasters. As technology improves, so will the resiliency of structures. There is good modeling available now to improve upon structural failures.

Noller: The real solution is to address climate change and get building, as one of the most wasteful industries, to actually decarbonize as quickly as possible. We’re already seeing the climate crisis unfolding. Just look at this summer and the amount of weather events that have occurred around the world.

After decarbonization, contractors should digitize as fast as possible. The only way that you can manage an unfolding crisis is to know what’s going on in real time. Imagine if airlines had no real-time data and they waited until the events occurred before they started reacting. Nowadays, you get a text that your flight has been delayed, so you stay home, it’s a far better customer experience and it’s far more proactive.


Baker: One is proactive and anticipatory, and the other is reactionary, to a degree. Climate change forces weather-pattern changes, which impact how a particular structure, system or service will need to respond, well into the future. Resilient design incorporates how to site, design and construct structures and systems with the aim of long-term survivability and the ability to bring those structures, systems or services back online as quickly as possible after a catastrophic event. I view disaster preparedness simply as protecting what’s currently in place from a short-term perspective rather than a longer-term view of resiliency based on projected climate changes.


Arabia: I don’t think so—not in the United States. I think that builders are recognizing the need and the availability of building for resiliency against natural and manmade threats to construction. Most states have laws that require buildings to be built more sustainably, and climate change is also making it necessary to update and improve existing infrastructure to withstand the severe impacts of a hot climate.

I do think that the energy industry has a lot of work to do in making sustainable infrastructure more available to cities, towns and remote areas.

Noller: Buildings are just incredibly wasteful assets. They are burning more energy than they need to. They’re using more resources than they need to. They are often using more space than they need to. It’s the biggest asset class on the planet, and it’s one of the most wasteful.

I’m a passionate climate-change believer. I believe in protecting our environment. The industries that need to change have been able to resist for a long, long time. But I think that those days have gone. We are now in a period where the governments, but more importantly the investors, are requiring change.

Gray: Climate change is something that feels like it’s very recently becoming more of an active thing. The broad response to wildfires, for example, has been inadequate and behind. That’s both a construction component and a regulation component from governments.

We are in a situation where there’s more frequent events driven by climate, plus a COVID-19-created supply-chain issue, inflation and everyone is dealing with the labor shortage. If you don’t have mechanisms already in place, good luck.


Arabia: Standardized design regulations will help. National organizations, such as LEED, have developed tiers of certification for builders to follow while intending to build green and with resiliency. Communication between builders and architects helps create more accurate tools and data to improve on construction.

In addition, construction professionals have the most hands-on involvement in the creation of infrastructure, and they should be involved not only when infrastructure is already destroyed but in preparing for disasters.

Noller: Service businesses have woken up and realized this is the future. At the same time, the digital transition is already underway. Businesses have to care, because if they don’t care, they’re not getting the capital. They’re either going to change or they’re going to continue doing business until their business dries up. So, there’s this catch-up phase now where the real-estate companies are incentivized to improve their ESG net-zero sustainability metrics.


Baker: Have a plan, keep it fresh and exercise the plan occasionally! Consider not only the likely outcomes but the worst-case scenarios as well. In our company, we maintain backup electronic filing systems and servers across regions of the country that are not likely to be impacted by an event at the same time. This redundancy has proven valuable to our firm, and we’ve been able to immediately respond after significant events. Establish communications protocols, such as who’s responsible for communicating with whom and when. Establish safety procedures and plans that ensure the safety of your team, your assets and your clients’ projects.

Obillo: When we think about scaling decarbonization for the built environment, we need to be focused on electrifying and managing energy demand. The cleanest kilowatt-hour of electricity is the one that isn’t used. To reduce energy demand and energy costs, large energy consumers (i.e., contractors) need to look to how they can create and execute custom energy-supply management strategies. By enabling smart buildings, it is possible to increase energy efficiency, reduce pollution and waste, save money and promote sustainability.

An example of this is when buildings participate in demand-response programs. Demand response compensates facilities that agree to reduce energy during times of high demand, and it is gaining traction as a go-to energy-management best practice for facilities across the globe.

Gray: Carriers and contractors that want to service people in their local geographies need to have a plan for when disasters happen. That starts with questions:

  • How do you work with people that are using the same documentation and workflow technology that maybe work in other areas?
  • How do you have preexisting agreements with them so they can bring resources, equipment and labor to the affected area from non-affected areas?
  • How do you know where those people are located?
  • How do you stage responders and match those to skills?

There’s quite a bit of preparation that can be done so that when an event happens, you can quickly bring in resources from outside of the affected area and get people back to pre-loss condition as fast as possible.

Arabia: The energy industry is experiencing unprecedented transformation, yet needs to work fast to make electricity and gas networks more resilient to withstand severe weather conditions. Clearly, there is an increasing appetite for more efficiency across the industry to deal with the rising costs of energy.

The energy industry has to work with local governments, builders and planners to make clean energy and resilience work for them. It needs to allow access and ease of use for the end user. This is much easier said than done, but it’s a critical element of sustainable building.


Obillo: Advanced energy solutions, like battery-energy storage, are important tools that developers should evaluate as an option in a new construction project. As cities become increasingly complex and densely populated, developers need to prioritize innovating and integrating advanced technology that provides their infrastructure with both flexibility and resiliency. Managing digitalized buildings to consume less energy is a key element of climate-proofing, decarbonizing and increasing the resiliency of urban areas.

Noller: The first thing is data. You can’t make these multimillion-dollar decisions without data. Second, you then have a single source of the truth. All of your data is in one place. Everybody’s looking at the same data. You don’t have discrepancies. A digital audit should be put into every single construction job, because it validates and verifies every system that was connected, whether the networks are working, which firmware was deployed, how many data points are being commissioned and the quality of that data.


Arabia: Commercial real-estate owners and buyers certainly are. There are a lot of case studies out there about the necessity to build structures that can stand up to climate risk. According to a 2021 report by Cervest, 88% of large companies have had a physical asset, such as an office or warehouse, affected by extreme weather. When they rebuild, they’ll do so with a resiliency plan in place.

Noller: There is so much money at stake and there are so many businesses that are in a death spiral because they’re not changing toward a more digital model.

For the construction industry, this is a hair-on-fire moment. The climate crisis is unfolding. Investors are insisting on higher accountability. There’s a generational change. There’s a whole bunch of people that are coming through as digital natives who are not going to tolerate walking around buildings with clipboards. At the same time, technology is becoming more and more affordable and available. It doesn’t cost very much to implement these things.

It’s time for contractors to be acutely aware of the shift in the sands underneath their feet and to be thinking about how they’re going to position their industry—and their companies—for this next decade of significant change.


 Comments ({{Comments.length}})

  • {{comment.Name}}


    {{comment.DateCreated.slice(6, -2) | date: 'MMM d, y h:mm:ss a'}}

Leave a comment

Required! Not valid email!