"Atmospheric Rivers" and Architecture

Q. What would happen in California if it rained for 40 days and 40 nights?

A. Massive flooding, landslides, and devastation exceeding that of the largest earthquakes predicted in the state.

This is not an idle concern. Such a storm occurred in 1861-1862 producing massive damage and bankrupting the state. And similar but smaller events have happened since then.

Relatively new scientific models say these storms are the result of "Atmospheric Rivers" that transport tropical moisture across the Pacific and throw it at the US West Coast with "firehose-like ferocity," according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

What will this mean to building construction once regulators, insurance companies, and mortgage lenders start factoring these risks into equations?

Along the Eastern Sea Board and the Gulf Coast, and near major rivers in the Midwest, flood resistant construction is already of concerns, and hurricane resistance is already required in South Florida and other vulnerable jurisdictions. In the decades to come, flood-resistant architecture is likely to become an even more significant factor in design and construction, and to become a factor in areas not previously thought of as flood-prone.

Flooding from atmospheric rivers is likely to be conflated with flooding predicted to accompany climate change, including: inundation of coastal areas, changes in precipitation patterns, and increased intensity of hurricanes and tropical storms. Katrina and recent flooding in Australia suggests the potential scale of the widespread damage that may occur, and emergency management agencies and other regulatory bodies are starting to take note.

This focus on flooding is ironic, because another significant trend in architecture is increased emphasis on water conservation, and severe water shortages are prognosticated in many parts of the world as a consequence of climate change. 

As public concerns about atmospheric rivers grows, possible impacts on construction and building products include:
  • The risks of flooding, landslides, or other flood-related damage will lead to new restrictions against building on vulnerable sites.
  • New engineering standard will be required for paving, foundations, and anything constructed on the ground to strengthen structures against supersaturation of soils.
  • Pipelines will have to be designed to resist buoyancy, and other utilities to resist damage due to excessive water pressure.
  • Building envelopes will be required to have increased resistance to wind-driven rain.
  • Demands on below grade waterproofing will be increased.
  • Flood barriers will receive increased consideration to prevent flooding water from entering buildings.
  • Structural designs will consider storm surge-resistance, even in areas not in traditional flood plains.
  • Demand will increase for building materials that will resist water damage and the mold that can grow on wet materials.
  • Increased construction on stilts will create opportunities for new types of framing systems, soffits, and ways to deliver services into elevated structures.
  • More construction on landfill.
  • Et cetera.
There may also be new opportunities for companies or organizations that pre-position materials and systems for rapid deployment after a disaster.

Without trying to be macabre, some building product manufactures may see a silver lining inside these storm clouds. I encourage you to join what is almost sure to be a national discussion about these risks, and to give them consideration in your long-term marketing strategy.

Australia, reeling from massive floods in 2011 and recent years, is already considering moves like those listed above.
Consider this report, for example,
THIS is a Gold Coast developer's possible solution to Queensland's flooding problem -- mini-suburbs on stilts.

Communities on concrete pylons -- roads, houses and all -- could be the way of the future, with Premier Anna Bligh saying the State Government will consider houses on stilts as way to stop homes going under in a flood.

The Gold Coast could be home to one of the first ''suburbs on stilts'' after a court cleared the way for a Merrimac development late last year.