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Extreme weather looms large in new building code mandate

Don Wall
Extreme weather looms large in new building code mandate
The National Research Council will be documenting incidents of heat waves, high winds, floods, droughts and more as it prepares new guidelines for buildings and infrastructure. Pictured, in 2013 Hamilton, Ont. was hard hit by a derecho wind event that often develops with a downburst, potentially causing massive damage to trees and powerlines lying in its path. -

For the first time the National Research Council (NRC) is partnering with Infrastructure Canada as it undertakes its cyclical round of consultations towards upgrading the National Building Codes, with adaptation to extreme weather events now a high priority and infrastructure now included.

In announcing the extreme weather focus Feb. 28, the NRC indicated that over the next five years it will conduct research and risk analyses to develop new solutions to factor climate resilience into the design of future buildings and infrastructure in Canada. This includes houses, roads, bridges, water systems and rapid transit networks, said the NRC.

"With climate change, the total annual precipitation is increasing, as well as the frequency and severity of extreme events, such as heat waves, high winds, floods and droughts, all of which is resulting in increased stress on built structures," said Richard Tremblay, general manager of construction at the NRC.

"In 2017, it is a necessity to start planning to adapt our buildings and infrastructure to withstand the new loads," said Tremblay.

NRC project manager Philip Rizcallah was asked why the NRC was a latecomer to extreme weather resilience. The topic has been on the radar for years but as late as 2016, when 360 changes were introduced into the National Building Codes, very few addressed climate change-induced extreme weather.

In part, he said, the answer lies in the fact that changes to the building codes generally take five years, with stakeholders first consulted on priorities, data gathered and technical solutions proposed by committees, then more stakeholder consultation undertaken related to the proposed solutions, then finally building code amendments implemented.

"Why didn’t we do it then and why are we doing it now?" Rizcallah asked. "Then the priorities of stakeholders and government were different. They wanted us to look at accessibility, they wanted us to look at fire safety, they wanted us to look at earthquake requirements.

"Now, as we go forward, climate change, amongst other things, is the priority."

The government is spending $40 million on the efforts, directed from the federal Investing in Canada Plan that will allocate over $180 billion on infrastructure funding over 12 years.

The National Building Code of Canada published by the NRC sets out technical standards for the design and construction of new buildings.

And now, infrastructure will be addressed by the NRC with climate change adaptation measures introduced into the CSA Bridge Code, and in the case of roads, guides and best practices will be developed for use by various government agencies.

"We will deliver these guidelines, tools and solutions, but at the same time, because it is Infrastructure Canada and the program also deals with bridges and roads, we are going to develop new guidelines and new best practices to deal with bridges and roads. And all the other heavy infrastructure," said Rizcallah.

"We are collecting this information for different reasons than Infrastructure Canada is collecting this information. We are collecting so we can come up with guides and solutions to address this, while Infrastructure Canada may be looking at it through a different lens, such as where do we prioritize our spending and our funding and our repairs."

Besides the new sponsor and expanded focus, there will also be a new approach to utilizing weather data, gathered by Environment Canada. For the first time, the environment agency will be asked for projections of future weather patterns, Rizcallah said.

"Currently we use historical data to determine wind loads, snow loads, rain loads," he said.

"What we’re going to be doing going forward is going to Environment Canada and saying, can you predict for us what the weather conditions will be like in the next 10, 50, 100, 150 years? So we will design based on predictions of future forecasts."

As for a timetable, the first round of consultations will occur in 2018 and 2019 and a first set of codes will be released in 2020, and then a series of guides shortly thereafter, said Rizcallah. Then it is expected the full set of extreme-weather mandate deliverables will have been incorporated into the National Building Code by 2025.

Among five manifestations of extreme weather — winds, droughts, floods, heat and fire — Rizcallah expects floods and fire will take priority.

"So far what we have been hearing is that floods seems to be prominent in a lot of areas, and fire," he said. "Those seem to be areas that have a high-impact, high-damage value on the country, so we’re definitely looking at those right now."

The link with infrastructure is obvious, he said — what good is building a structure that withstands harsh weather if "the roads are inoperative or there’s no power coming to those buildings or you can’t keep sewage away from those buildings?

"You haven’t solved the problem," said Rizcallah. "So we are looking at solutions as a holistic approach, on a community basis."

As for possible solutions, Rizcallah said examples of building code changes to deal with increased risk of floods could be backflow preventers, enhanced sump pumps and installing electrical panels on the main floor instead of in a basement. But, he said, the NRC would let the experts do their job and come up with recommendations.

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