Monday, July 8, 2024

Disaster Resilience of our Built Environment: Advanced Technologies Promoting Continued Functionality of Structures

Over the past couple of decades, structural resilience and functional recovery, particularly of essential facilities and critical infrastructure, have become two major goals driving the construction industry towards the use of advanced technologies that enable enhanced structural performance and reduced damage in the event of natural or man-made disasters. According to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, during the last 20 years (2000-2019), extreme weather events such as storms, droughts, and extreme temperatures resulting in floods, wildfires, and landslides, as well as other natural phenomena such as earthquakes and volcanic activity, have claimed over 1.2 million lives, have displaced or affected over 4.2 billion people, and have resulted in an estimated US$3 trillion in direct global economic losses. Long-term indirect economic losses resulting from business interruption, disruption in key transportation links, reduction of manufacturing capacity due to supply shortages, and other detrimental effects leading to a prolonged economic recovery of an affected region, have historically surpassed direct economic losses by an order of magnitude.

Although in select cases, natural disasters can be prevented or mitigated through proper selection of the construction site to avoid areas prone to floods, landslides, or in close proximity to active earthquake faults or volcanoes, historical and ongoing urban development tendencies currently dictate the need for other disaster management measures such as disaster preparedness and response. These preliminary preparations are key to facilitating post-disaster rescue and relief efforts, expediting functional recovery of essential facilities and infrastructure, and reducing lead time for the reconstruction or rehabilitation work of other non-essential structures in the affected region.

In the case of essential facilities such as hospitals and health centers, emergency response and communication centers, critical bridges and infrastructure, as well as industrial facilities storing or processing vital or hazardous materials, it is imperative for all key players in the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) sector to engage in a proactive design approach that would go beyond these basic disaster management strategies to promote these facilities’ continued functionality throughout and following such eventualities.

The implementation of leading technologies such as energy dissipation devices, seismic isolation systems, and hybrid vibration controls for earthquake protection, composite systems and chemically treated materials with enhanced fire resistance for accidental explosions or wildfires, and advanced, ultra-high strength, ductile, and light-weight materials and structural systems for other threats, is thus becoming more widespread and is leading to a more sustainable and, ultimately, a more cost-effective approach for our urban development and renewal. Ongoing R&D efforts in advancing these technologies and materials based on observed behavior during past disasters, as well as experimental and analytical studies by leading academics, practicing engineers, and manufacturers, should be welcomed and encouraged by the AEC sector.

Given a more conscientious understanding by the AEC industry worldwide of our limited resources and the detrimental effects of excessive waste and debris from our failed construction projects, as well as the accumulating effects of direct and indirect economic losses, the durability, reliability, and stability of construction materials, structural systems, and disaster-protection strategies are becoming key concerns in the development of important construction projects.

The United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development calls for the construction and retrofit of reliable, sustainable and resilient infrastructure using advanced technologies (Goal 9), as well as the reduction of the number of deaths, people affected, and direct economic losses caused by global natural disasters by adopting and implementing integrated disaster resiliency and risk management policies (Goal 11). The 2002 World Health Organization’s Safe Hospitals directive (and subsequently, the Pan American Health Organization’s Safe Hospitals directive) also calls for the design and construction of new hospital facilities to maintain functionality at maximum capacity after disasters. Unfortunately, to date, the United Nations’ agenda and World Health Organization’s directive have only been pursued by select countries and regions, particularly those which are more susceptible or historically affected by natural disasters and that have developed a heightened awareness of future threats.

Building owners, developers, architects, and structural engineers around the world, guided by clear construction standards imposed by governmental or other construction regulation entities, should therefore strive to implement advanced, disaster-resilient solutions, rather than minimum code-prescribed requirements. These advanced protective devices, materials, and structural systems, engineered by properly qualified manufacturers and regulated by rigorous product standards that thoroughly assess their competence, will undoubtedly prove to be a cost-effective investment when accounting for a structure’s potential post-disaster repair cost and life cycle. A proper widespread adoption of these advanced technologies to minimize damage will promote adequate performance and post-disaster functionality of new or rehabilitated facilities and infrastructure projects, an objective which goes beyond simply avoiding structural collapse or ensuring the safe evacuation of the building occupants in the case of a devastating eventuality. This proactive approach and continued post-disaster functionality goal will ensure the true resilience of our build environment in the face of persistent and growing threats.