Homeowners in Boston may need to improve insulation, install solar photovoltaic systems, and identify places of refuge in preparation for the results of climate change, according to a new report. Multifamily and commercial structure owners may need to do much more. Wikimedia Commons/AlexiusHoratius
Leaders in the historic city are seeking the best strategies to withstand sea level rise and a growing threat from strong storms.
November 19, 2013—Few cities in the United States possess the rich historic fabric of Boston. The city traces its origins to the early 1600s, and was the site of many crucial events in the American Revolution, including the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, and Paul Revere's “midnight ride.” The “shot heard around the world” took place just 19 mi to the east.
It is also true that few cities in the United States can match Boston in terms of vulnerability to climate change in that it is the only state capital in the continental United States that fronts an ocean. With an official elevation of just 46 ft above sea level—and portions of the city at sea level—the prospects of sea level increases are a troubling and pressing concern.
A study of the problem and the ensuing report entitled Building Resilience in Boston were recently commissioned by the Climate Preparedness Working Group of the Boston Green Ribbon Commission (BGRC), a group of business, institutional, and civic leaders formed to work with the city’s government to plan for the results of climate change. The Boston Society of Architects (BSA) served in an advisory role in the project, which was funded by the Barr Foundation. The report was developed and prepared by Boston-based Linnean Solutions, the Built Environment Coalition, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Resilient Design Institute, of Brattleboro, Vermont.
“We had an interesting charge with the report,” notes Jim Newman, the director of metrics for Linnean Solutions. “The charge was to provide information aimed at building owners [on] both a large scale and small scale that would help them understand the steps they could take to make their properties more resilient. And also to help the [BGRC] think about what they might ask the city for—in terms of both regulation and incentives—to aid building owners in pursuing that work.”
The massive damage and extensive rebuilding process experienced by New York City and portions of New Jersey in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy were driving factors in pursuing the research, according to Mike Davis, FAIA, a principal and vice president of Bergmeyer Associates, in Boston, and the president of the BSA.
The team used resiliency documents prepared by New York, London, Toronto, and the federal government as resources in their work. After assembling an impressive bibliography of reference material, the team interviewed key figures in resilience efforts around the world, focusing on case studies and results. Finally, they prepared a complex map of the city that shows the vulnerabilities of different areas and the prevalence of building types and construction materials in those areas.
The report notes that the city is vulnerable to severe storms, hurricanes, storm surge, blizzards, and extreme temperatures—both summer heat and winter cold. A category 4 hurricane could flood large portions of the city, potentially resulting in more than $14 billion in damage.
“Climate change will exacerbate these extreme weather events, increasing both the frequency of the events as well as the magnitude of the impacts,” the authors note. “For example, sea level rise will increase the incidence of coastal flooding, especially with storm surges, and the magnitude of the flooding will increase with the rising tides.” With its low elevation and proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, Boston leaders face a choice—fight incoming water or prepare for it.
“You can plan your cities so that water will come into them,” Davis says. “You plan your infrastructure, your streets, your sidewalks, your plumbing, and your transit accordingly. Or you try to keep the water out. They are two different approaches. I don’t know how you end up on this, but it’s probably a little bit of both. It’s partially hardening the infrastructure and partially rebuilding former ecosystems that were here.”
Boston is an old city; with more than half of residential housing structures were built prior to 1940. Nearly one-third of these residential buildings have three or fewer stories built of wood frames. A common style of residential structure is three stories with an apartment on each level. Many of the structures are in economically challenged neighborhoods.
Newman notes that raising the structures several feet might eventually be necessary. For now, improving insulation to reduce heat gain and loss during power outages is an effective strategy. Installing solar photovoltaic systems that can disengage from the grid and still provide power to several electrical outlets is also an effective strategy.
“Having places of refuge is a key strategy and it’s one that is happening,” Newman says. “The committee groups and the city and the schools are all starting to get their heads around this and thinking very strategically about where are places of refuge relative to the people, are they distributed enough, and then what do those places need?”
For larger residential and commercial structures, a more cost-effective strategy is known as “wet flood proofing.” This approach involves creating a small, waterproof area in a building’s basement to protect mechanical equipment and such fuel sources as heating oil tanks. The rest of the basement freely accommodates the inflow and outflow of water, and backflow preventers are fitted to sewage lines. “This is maybe the single greatest thing that an owner can do—anticipate water in the basement, and allow for it to come in and go out,” Davis says.
“The worst case scenario is that the water comes into your basement, the heating oil tank goes over, and your sewage pipes back up,” Davis adds. “You’ve got heating oil and sewage floating around in your basement. This is a catastrophe.”
Newman says that hardening mechanical systems in existing buildings is often a more effective strategy than moving them up in the building or to the roof.
“You can build a bunker in the basement for your systems,” Newman says. “You can harden a piece of your basement to keep water out to a pretty high level. That’s what a lot of the buildings are going to do.”
But that same method is “not possible to do in a residential setting,” he explains. “It’s prohibitively expensive. If you live in an area that is [suddenly] a floodplain [in] the revised FEMA maps, you should just go ahead and lift it two feet. And those systems come up with that as well.”
The report notes that the city has a wide variety of commercial building stock. This ranges from the 65 percent of commercial buildings—mostly smaller office buildings—built prior to 1930 to the more than 25 million sq ft of commercial space built between 1960 and 1988.
Many cities are considering climate change in their plans for new buildings. “The cities are thinking about what kind of regulations do we want to put in place to make sure that the buildings that are being built are resilient and existing buildings have an opportunity to upgrade. One of the things that is clear is there really is not a one size fits all strategy,” Newman says. “Buildings are different. Their needs are very different.” This is a liability—because there isn’t a single strategy—but it’s also an asset because it means that some buildings will fare well in certain types of disasters, even without modifications.
“We are going to have to visualize a new urban condition that anticipates a climate, an ecosystem, that doesn’t exist now,” Davis says. “This is a huge infrastructure challenge. It’s a design question for the engineers. We are going to need the brightest civil engineers in the world. We are going to need a generation of civil engineers who have this kind of picture for themselves—‘I can be part of the solution. I can be part of imagining a new urban condition.’ Engineering is more important all the time.”