Monday, April 29, 2013

Q9: Environmental Impact of Disasters

What is the environmental impact of natural and man-made disasters?   How can holistic life cycle thinking impact the way we design for disasters?

Author: Matthew Comber, Lionel Lemay ; Contributors: Frances Yang, Tonatiuh Rodriguez-Nikl

At the end of 2011, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said the U.S. had experienced 14 separate disasters, each with an economic loss of $1 billion or more, surpassing the record set in 2008 (NOAA 2011). Losses in 2011 amounted to $55 billion in the U.S. Globally, insurers lost at least $108 billion on disasters in 2011. Reinsurer Swiss Re Ltd. said that 2011 was the second-worst year in the industry's history. Only 2005, with Hurricane Katrina and other major storms, were more costly (Swiss Re 2011). In 2012, there have been 11 natural disasters costing $1 billion or more in damage, making 2012 the second highest year with billion-dollar disasters. Tornadoes in 2012, the widespread and intense drought that covered at least 60 percent of the contiguous U.S. and Hurricane Sandy are expected to be the most costly weather-related disasters in U.S. history.

Figure 9-1 Source: Billion-Dollar U.S. Weather/Climate Disasters 1980-2012

Most of the increased disaster losses cannot be attributed to an increased occurrence of hazards but changes in population migration and wealth. In the last several decades, population in the United States has increased and migrated toward the coasts, concentrating along the earthquake-prone Pacific coast and the hurricane-prone Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Over 60% of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of one of its coasts (including the Great Lakes) (CRSR 1997). At the same time, wealth and the value of their possessions have increased substantially. The high concentration of people in coastal regions has produced many economic benefits, but the combined effects of booming population growth and economic and technological development are threatening the ecosystems that provide these economic benefits. Moreover, many elements of these aged infrastructures are highly vulnerable to breakdowns that can be triggered by relatively minor events (Masters 2011).

Figure 9-2 Sources: GDP Data:; Storm Damage Data:

As a society, we have placed a great deal of emphasis on recycling rates and reducing operational energy use in green building codes and rating systems.  However, standard building code requirements for seismic or wind loads that accept significant damage in a major event are not addressed.  For example, the latest version of LEED introduced special emphasis on LCA criteria, but does not recognize disaster resilience as one of its standard criteria.

There is a jurisdictional elective in the International Green Construction Code (IGCC) for performing LCA as a way to demonstrate that a proposed building has a lower environmental impact than a reference design, but there is no guidance on incorporating resilience into the analysis. ASHRAE 189.1, Standard for Design of High Performance, Green Buildings does have an option for evaluating the embodied emissions of all building materials in a building. Clause Step 1-1.e does require that maintenance, repair, and replacement during the design life with or without operational energy consumption must be taken into account, but it is clear that this is referring to regular maintenance, repair and replacement and not damage caused by natural hazards.

For a building to be truly sustainable it should be resilient. It should consider potential for future use and re-use and have a long service life with low maintenance costs. (Kestner, Goupil & Lorenz, 2010) In addition, a sustainable building should be designed to sustain minimal damage due to natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, flooding and fire (Kneer & Maclise 2008). Otherwise, the environmental, economic and societal burden of our built environment could be overwhelming. A building that requires frequent repair and maintenance or complete replacement after disasters would result in unnecessary cost, from both private and public sources, and environmental burdens including the energy, waste and emissions due to disposal, repair and replacement.

Resilience and LCA

A few methodologies have been proposed (Court et al. 2012) and implemented (Comber et al. 2012 & 2013b, Comber & Poland 2013, Sarkisian et al. 2012) to assess the environmental impacts of seismic damage. At their core, these methodologies share a common approach: a pairing of a seismic loss assessment methodology with building component LCA data. The concept of using a seismic damage assessment to understand environmental impacts is very new- there is no standard method or procedure, however the methods proposed by these authors can be very useful depending upon the desired results and amount of detailed information damage an life cycle inventory data available.
Damage Assessment

Consideration of isolated disastrous events can be a useful approach for clients who are looking at potentially large capital losses associated with direct damage or downtime during the repair process.  Care should be taken, however, to communicate to the client that these events have a somewhat small probability of occurrence during any building’s lifespan.  A more holistic understanding of a building’s probable lifetime environmental impacts may be gained by conducting a probabilistic seismic hazard assessment and examining the potential impacts across a range of risk levels. Comber et al. (2013a) propose a method for conducting such an assessment and note the importance of including a consideration of small- to moderate-sized seismic events in such an assessment.

The method proposed by Court et al. has yet to be explicitly defined; rather the authors are currently making recommendations to FEMA for various approaches that may be feasible.  Regardless of the final version of their approach, it stands to provide a useful method to gaining a detailed understanding of the building’s impacts and their distributions throughout the structure.  Sarkisian et al. propose a method and associated software tool that allows a general understanding of total impacts best used when comparing one structural seismic system to another.  The methodology proposed by Comber et al. is a more detailed approach that is designed to target key “environmentally sensitive” components so that the structural and/or nonstructural seismic design strategy can be adjusted at the project outset to best protect those components from damage.  A common theme can be found throughout these authors’ approaches: the role of the structure (and thus the structural engineer) must often be heightened to one of protecting nonstructural components in order to effectively minimize impacts of seismic damage.

Environmental Impact Data

Sarkisian et al. propose a process-based LCA that is defined in terms of material quantities, whereas Comber et al. use an Economic Input-Output LCA that is based on a building cost estimate (more detail on their EIO procedure is presented by Comber et al. 2013a).

Sustainable Building Standards

For green building standards to truly address sustainable construction, the concept of disaster resilience must be addressed. State-of-the-art modern buildings are no doubt currently in construction that are designed to meet LEED or other green building requirements that could be easily destroyed as a result of a hurricane, earthquake or other force of nature.  There is a high risk that the monetary & environmental investment made to create high-efficiency systems in these buildings will not generate a return if the building undergoes damage due to a natural hazard event.  A consideration of the risks and benefits associated with resilient design strategies would ensure that the statistical minimum lifetime environmental impacts are realized in these designs.


Comber M.V., Poland C., Sinclair M. (2012).  “Environmental impact seismic assessment: application of performance-based earthquake engineering methodologies to optimize environmental performance.”  Proceedings, American Society of Civil Engineers/ Structural Engineering Institute (ASCE-SEI) Structures Congress, Chicago, IL.

Comber, M.V., Erickson, C., & Poland, C. (2013a). “Quantifying and Minimizing the Environmental Impacts of Seismic Damage to Buildings: A Procedure and Case Study.” Journal of Structural Engineering, in review.

Comber, M.V., Poland, C., & Sinclair, K.M. (2013b). “Sustainable Concrete Structures through Seismic Resilience: A Case Study.” Proceedings, International Concrete Sustainability Conference, San Francisco, CA.

Comber, M.V. & Poland, C. (2013). “Disaster Resilience and Sustainable Design: Quantifying the Benefits of a Holistic Design Approach.” Proceedings, American Society of Civil Engineers- Structural Engineering Institute (ASCE-SEI) Structures Congress, Pittsburgh, PA.

Congressional Research Service Report (CRSR). (1997). Oceans & Coastal Resources: A Briefing Book, Congressional Research Service Report 97-588 ENR. Accessed November 13, 2012.
Court A., Simonen K., Webster M., Trusty W., Morris P. (2012).  “Linking next-generation performance-based seismic design criteria to environmental performance (ATC-86 and ATC-58).”  Proceedings, American Society of Civil Engineers/ Structural Engineering Institute (ASCE-SEI) Structures Congress, Chicago, IL.

Economic Policy Institute (EPI). (2012). State of Working America, Accessed November 13, 2012.

Kestner, D, Goupil, J. & Lorenz, E. ed. (2010).  Sustainability Guidelines for the Structural Engineer.  American Society of Civil Engineers Structural Engineering Institute, Reston Virginia.

Kneer, E., & Maclise, L. (2008). “Consideration of Building Performance in Sustainable Design: A Structural Engineer’s Role.” Proceedings, Structural Engineers Association of California (SEAOC) Annual Convention.

Masters, J. (2011). 2011’s Billion-Dollar Disasters: Is climate Change to Blame?, Weaterwise, March-April 2012, Accessed November 13, 2012.

National Climate Data Center (NOAA). (2011). Accessed November 13, 2012.

Sarkisian M., Hu L., Shook D. (2012).  “Mapping a structure’s impact on the environment.”  Proceedings, American Society of Civil Engineers/ Structural Engineering Institute (ASCE-SEI) Structures Congress, Chicago, IL.

Swiss Re Estimates 2011 Economic Cat Loss at $350 Bn; Insured Loss $108 Bn. (2011), accessed November 13, 2012.

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3 Responses so far.

  1. Another fantastic reference on the sustainability of disaster resilience is a committee report that was recently completed by the SEI Sustainability Committee's Disaster Resilience working group. It will be available soon in the ASCE bookstore soon under the title "Disaster Resilience and Sustainability".

  2. A quick update on the Comber/Erickson/Poland paper: the Journal of Structural Engineering ultimately chose not to publish it. We are looking for other publication outlets, but in the meantime it resides simply as a white paper.

  3. Megan Stringer says:

    About a year ago SOM released their Environmental Analysis tool to the public. The tool estimates the equivalent carbon dioxide emissions embodied in structures. It also "integrates environmental performance with seismic risk to quantify the benefits of enhanced seismic performance with regards to damage mitigation and environmental impacts. A cost/benefit component is incorporated to communicate benefits of enhanced seismic performance in fiscal measures."

    The tool can be downloaded here:

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