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How commercial office buildings can improve their flood resilience


November 20, 2019   by Jason Contant


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If your client is a commercial real estate building owner or manager in Canada, there are some major retrofits they can take to improve their flood resilience.

While many of the measures – such as elevating and flood-proofing critical equipment, isolating electrical circuits and electrical panel upgrades – may be cost-prohibitive to implement post-construction, they may be warranted for critical sites or during major building retrofits, says a recent report from the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation (ICCA). The report, Ahead of the Storm: Developing Flood-Resilience Guidance for Canada’s Commercial Real Estate, outlines 20 measures that can be implemented to enhance flood resilience of existing office towers, thereby reducing the potential for property damage, business interruptions and loss of life.

The measures are broken down into three categories: plans and procedures, equipment & supplies, and major retrofits. Under the major retrofits category, the measures include:

  • Equipping electrical panels with wi-fi-enabled breakers to allow for remote shut-off
  • Isolating electrical circuits for each parking level on multi-level parkades
  • Ensuring high-voltage and telecommunication pull rooms are waterproofed and equipped with drainage
  • Elevating and flood-proofing critical equipment above expected flood levels (including heating, cooling, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC)) equipment, electrical transformers, switchgear and service panels, as well as communication systems. If it’s not feasible to elevate, these systems should be flood-proofed (for example, with equipment elevated off the ground and drains at the lowest points on the floor)
  • Protecting server rooms by locating them on higher floors, preferably on a raised platform, with a sump pump installed at the lowest point. Water sensors should be installed for leak detection.

Commercial real estate owners and managers, as well as their tenants, are increasingly exposed to impacts of flooding, such as a higher potential for property damage, business disruptions and loss of life. For example, following the 2013 floods in Alberta, between 150,000 to 180,000 people could not access office buildings in downtown Calgary for about two weeks. This resulted in 5.1 million lost work hours, equivalent to half a billion dollars in GDP loss to the province, ICCA said in a press release.

Besides retrofitting, some other measures include:

  • Ensuring that documentation to access business interruption insurance (such as financial statements, lease agreements and inventory counts) is regularly updated, backed-up electronically and stored offsite
  • Designated staff have access to both credit cards and sufficient amounts of cash to be used for emergency operations
  • Having a designated space available for building operations staff to use as emergency operations centres (located above expected flood levels and equipped with water, non-perishable food supplies and emergency kits)
  • Protecting hazardous materials from flooding (i.e. chemicals used in building operations are stored in sealed containers, or in inflammable cabinets located above expected flood levels). Where hazardous materials are stored, floor drains are protected from spills.

The measures outlined in the report are deemed broadly applicable to multi-unit residential towers and other commercial and institutional buildings, ICCA said, based on national consultation with commercial real estate owners, managers, institutional investors, asset management consultants, insurance industry representatives and others. As such, they should be integrated into risk assessment checklists and acquisition and investment questionnaires used by property managers, owners and institutional investors.

As well, since the National Building Code of Canada is being revised to incorporate climate change impacts, some measures (such as water sensors that prevent elevators from proceeding to flood-inundated levels) should be prioritized for inclusion in code revisions, ICCA recommended.