Green-building focus due for shift following Sandy's wrath

January 07. 2013 3:00AM

By now, there is little to no doubt in most people's minds that climate change, or at least climate disruption, is upon us. As architects, engineers and planners begin to sort out the consequential damages caused by recent storms such as superstorm Sandy, they must also begin to look toward a future of weather patterns, storm surges and extreme weather-related disturbances that will undoubtedly reshape coastal towns and buildings forever.

Green-building advocates have long been focused on the environmental or ecological "footprint" of buildings, their consumption of fossil fuels which add to carbon emissions, and the overall "healthiness" of the materials used within buildings that expose humans to volatile organ compounds that can lead to respiratory illness as well as other associated health risks. But perhaps now, in the aftermath of recent hurricane activity such as Katrina, Irene and Sandy, it may be a time for a paradigm shift in the green-building world — and the business community in New Jersey must take note.

Building codes are enforced by local municipalities, but the laws themselves vary from state to state and are guided by an International Building Code. States adopt all or portions of this code and require municipal code officials to enforce them in their respective geographic locations. These codes include everything to do with building safety, ranging from natural disasters, such as hurricanes and wildfires, to more specific building conditions, like snow loads, soil conditions, thermal conductivity and humidity, and the number of plumbing fixtures and smoke detectors required. As much as these codes are in place to protect the safety of building occupants, these codes also focus greatly on the protection of real property, and consequently are heavily lobbied by insurance companies.

The catastrophic loss of real property over the past couple of storms far exceeds the loss of human life by comparison. As such, we might expect to see a tightening of the building code with respect to storm-resistant construction techniques. Federal regulations along coastal areas and flood lands will likely become increasingly more difficult to obtain approval for building, or even prohibited from construction altogether. It's easy to see why environmental supporters would want to prohibit building in ecologically sensitive areas, but generally, they are on opposing sides of the aisles when it comes to lawmakers and developers. Now seeing the potential for financial consequences and the cost to taxpayers, it is likely that more stringent rules for limiting the amount of construction in flood- and surge-prone areas is highly likely. Where the jury is still out is on exactly what level of new building or reconstruction is ultimately permissible and where we can expect a push toward a new type of construction, a stronger, more durable, and ecologically sound morphology with a clear eye toward environmental stewardship and the preservation of capital investment.

William E. S. Kaufman
founder, WESKetch Architecture Inc.