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Buildings Specialists Grappling With Rebuilding In a Post-Sandy World Call For a Resiliency Czar

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Rendering Courtesy of Ennead Architects
Finalist scheme in an ongoing AIA NY-led design competition protects an 80-acre waterfront village by elevating the streetscape.
Since Superstorm Sandy, removable flood barriers are selling like hotcakes in the Northeast.
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Looking for free building-vulnerability assessment tools? The Dept. of Homeland Security's web pages offer plenty. Details on federal resilient-building initiatives can be found on FEMA's website. For those seeking post-Superstorm Sandy advice from insurers or architects, websites such as disastersafety.org and postsandyinitiative.org offer up plenty of material to download.

Anyone doing a web search using keywords such as BOMA NY, ASCE/SEI, NIST, NIBS, AIA, ASHRAE, ICC or NFPA will discover thousands of results on almost any subject related to resilient buildings. Scores of posted reports, advisories and guides on adapting buildings and communities to extreme natural hazards—hurricanes, high winds, floods, storm surges and wildfires at the urban edges—are available to anyone after just a few clicks. But web searches on the implementation of these resiliency methods yield far less.

Sites that sell removable building barriers and hardened houses are scattered across the web, including plenty with material about amphibious buildings. There is even design guidance for tornado- and tsunami-resistant structures.

Multihazard-mitigation and adaptation planning is not new. Risk-assessment tools and services have been available for years. But Sandy's unprecedented storm surge last Oct. 29, which swamped the coastal Northeast—including Lower Manhattan—turned the private sector's attention, as never before, toward resilient commercial buildings. Rebuilding and retrofit planning exploded for all sorts of occupancies.

Though there are dozens of initiatives around resilient buildings, some say there has been little progress toward resiliency. "The U. S. has been somewhat paralyzed in the development of an effective building-resiliency response by the extreme politicizing of the topic of climate change," says Ben Sandzer-Bell, chief resilience officer for Climate Adaptation Solutions. "The level of political toxicity prevents effective engagement by a large segment of the American body politic, industry, academia, NGOs and media."

One consequence of this "toxicity," says Sandzer-Bell, is the absence of national coordination linking diverse initiatives, which results in a failure to achieve a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

He has a solution. "The Obama administration ... can provide [non-partisan] national leadership through the establishment of a building resilience 'czar' with coordinating authority to [seek] synergies and highlight gaps in current work by uncoordinated public- and private-sector actors," says Sandzer-Bell.

Robet C. Wible, a building regulatory reform consultant, agrees. "We cannot afford to keep reinventing wheels, spending precious public- and private-sector funds and staff time on duplicative and, at times, conflicting actions," says Wible. "We need someone and some place to connect the dots."

Wible envisions a resiliency ombudsman who would report to the president or vice president and be housed with a staff in the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The OSTP is linked to the existing National Science and Technology Council's Committee on Homeland Security and its subworking group, which consists of representatives from federal agencies that build. The ombudsman would coordinate with stakeholder associations, professional societies, academia and groups representing state, regional and local government.

A presidential appointment would be helpful because, currently, there is no central clearinghouse, place for discussion or ability to understand the big picture, agrees Ryan Colker, adviser to Henry Green, National Institute of Building Sciences president.

The Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, which is about to update its 2011 report rating state residential building-code and enforcement systems for life safety and property protection in hurricane-prone regions, paints a different scenario. IIBHS supports the U.S. Commerce Dept.'s National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) as coordinator. It promotes forming an interagency coordinating committee on windstorm and flood-impact reduction to augment federal earthquake programs and a national advisory committee on natural-hazard impact reduction that would exclude federal employees.

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