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Creating More Resilient Buildings After Superstorm Sandy

Creating More Resilient Buildings After Superstorm Sandy

From ASHRAE Journal Newsletter, June 27, 2017

By Mary Kate McGowan, Associate Editor, News

Five years after Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc and flooded buildings along the United States’ East Coast, a seminar at the 2017 ASHRAE Annual Conference seeks to help engineers, architects, and facility owners better design and operate buildings in the event of flooding. 

Superstorm Sandy hit major cities along the East Coast including New York City in October 2012. Sandy’s storm surge and rainfall flooded parts of the area, including basements that housed HVAC units. The storm’s aftermath included rewriting recommendations and design guidelines on how to properly store electrical units in the case of a flood. 

“You had entire equipment rooms just completely flooded, not just flooded, submerged,” said Scott Sherwood, Member ASHRAE, who is the seminar’s chair. 

Sherwood and Chris Colasanti, P.E., Member ASHRAE, will present during the seminar, Flooding, Superstorm Sandy: Lessons Learned and Strategies Implemented. 

Colasanti said the seminar will address codes that govern flood-resistant construction and examples of how designers can create more resilient buildings that can better withstand storms. Designers from all over, not just the New York City area, can learn about how to make more resilient buildings as storms are becoming stronger, he said. 

While the seminar will touch upon building codes and recommendations, he said the lecturers will also discuss the “non-obvious” aspects about how buildings operate before, during, and after a storm. 

Those details vary and depend on if the building, like a hospital, can continuously operate throughout a storm or if the building can be evacuated. 

“You have to step outside sometimes from just the nuts and bolts of the codes and think more about the operational aspects,” Colasanti said. 

Richard Cohen, vice president of facilities operations at NYU Langone Medical Center, which was badly damaged and had to be evacuated during the storm, is expected to explain how one of the largest health-care providers in the New York City area made adjustments to its evacuation protocol and other improvements such as flood walls and barriers. 

TC 2.5, Global Climate Change; TC 2.8, Building Environmental Impacts and Sustainability; and TC 4.2. Climatic Information, sponsored the seminar. 

“Superstorm Sandy truly affected the way buildings have to be designed,” said Sherwood, TC 2.5’s research subcommittee chair.


Prior to the storm, facility owners housed electrical equipment and HVAC units in buildings’ basements and cellars Sherwood said.

“You’re surely not going to take a floor of possible, rentable real estate if you don’t have to,” he said. “Now, the idea of putting electrical substations and HVAC units down in the basement is done with a different level of risk.” 

After the storm, code requirements mandate where systems, including HVAC units, are located in a building and vary based on jurisdiction, said Colasanti. Some jurisdictions have strengthened their codes since Sandy and require systems to be located well above the floodplain to make the buildings more resilient, he said. 

“In general, people are recognizing that infrastructure that supports the building should not be below the floodplain or in an area that could be flooded,” he said. 

Other adjustments include designing flood-proof doors and draining and pumping systems that remove water from inside a building faster. The systems are meant to divert water from flooding mechanical rooms, stairwells in the case of an evacuation, and electrical distribution centers.

Designers also paying more attention to designing buildings where people can exit during a flood and that has its systems programmed to allow fuel and electricity into the structure when power companies fail, Colasanti said. 

Some changes now include preparing for the worst. Before Superstorm Sandy, facilities and companies would buy emergency generators to house in the basement to produce power during a brown- or blackout. After Sandy, “mission critical” facilities like data centers, the New York Stock Exchange, and banks have opened backup facilities in other locations to safeguard against a possible total loss of data, Sherwood said. 

The seminar outlines lessons learned during the emergency event to better educate building owners, engineers, and architects in other parts of the United States and the world on how to prepare for climatic events such as flooding. 

“A lot of the engineering community, I think, has been reactive to weather events. Things will only get changed when they’re forced to, so I think the goal here is to try to get the community to look ahead a little further and address the inevitable, regardless of why people think it’s happening,” Colasanti said.