Nicholas Rajkovich, the man who wanted to make construction sector resilient at last

Nicholas Rajkovich runs Resilient Buildings Lab, a research lab at the University of Buffalo which focuses on studies in future-proof engineering and architecture construction techniques adapted to impacts of today’s climate crisis. His latest accomplishment? He recently wrote a column that created a mini media storm, maintaining that “our research shows that the U.S. building stock may not be prepared for future climate-related storms and flooding.”.

Climate risks: heard them all before, yet ignorance reigns

The IPCC has been documenting climate risks since at least 2012: the frequency, intensity and duration of extreme climate events have increased since 1950, and just like the associated human and economic effects, they are all likely to continue increasing drastically. 

In France, a 2018 report from Onerc (L’Observatoire national sur les effets du réchauffement climatique) summarizes that this triple increase particularly relates to summer heatwaves. By 2100, we’ll witness “intense agricultural droughts almost permanently”, like nothing we’ve ever seen before. What’s more, there’ll also be a heightened risk of coastal flooding, coastal erosion, wider spread wildfires and periods of increasingly intense extreme rain. 

We’re continuing to improve our knowledge of the impacts: the number of people affected by rising water levels from now until 2050 has recently been re-evaluated – and multiplied by three!  1 million people will be affected in France alone, as well as an estimated 300 million people throughout the world. So should we (still) be reminded of this? To put it simple: yes! Because following a study co-lead by Nicholas Rajkoivch questioning construction industry professionals in the state of New York, the results showed that they are aware of potential climate impacts, but the vast majority continue to assume that meteorological conditions in the future “will be similar to those in the past.” For those whom the climate crisis is a concern, they tend to focus their efforts on energy efficiency rather than climate-related resilience, for reasons related to a lack of information, outdated building codes and limited support from their clients.

Resilience strategies requiring leadership and resources

The last (but by no means least) limiting factor is that of resources – both human and financial, which help us to better understand the impacts and put in place adapted solutions. Because resilience – a concept that has become key for both infrastructure and territories – groups together multiple dimensions: the capacity to both anticipate and tolerate the effects of a catastrophic event at the same time, but also to ability to bounce back easily afterwards. Implementing resilience also requires substantial means less than it does consequential changes in attitude, perception and design. 

Rajkovich remarks that this huge task of “re-evaluating” design, construction and management practices is currently at work in the construction industry, with authorities instigating change – take New York City for example, and their climate resiliency design guidelines. New approaches are emerging, but in an often sparse way. Amongst them you’ll find wet floodproofing, in which structures are designed so that flood water can enter without causing damage (resistant materials, protecting equipment, adapted management of openings, etc.); and passive survivability, which is a building’s ability to maintain critical life-support conditions in the event of catastrophe, such as air ventilation systems. For both new builds and renovations – and especially for collective housing, it is even more important to lead this battle, target investments, and train architects and engineers on the impacts.

 Nicholas Rajkovich has not lost hope of this systematic change, but calls on leaders in construction professions: in order for the sector to improve, leaders must change their contractual documents, evaluations systems and design standards.So, will this happen any time soon?

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