Construction Risks, Part 2: Climate Change

This is the second installment in a series on key risks facing the construction industry.

March 2, 2022

Strategy / Planning

by Matt Rossie, Webcor COO/President

It has become increasingly difficult for climate change skeptics to press their case. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in California, heat waves have grown more common, and snow is melting earlier in the spring. In Southern California, less rain is falling; less rain means drier forests and more frequent and intense fires. Temperatures continue to rise and sea levels in the Bay Area are rising, which will impact homes, agriculture, and low-lying cities. (Nationwide, sea levels are projected to rise more in the next 30 years than they did during the entire 20th century.) In the decades ahead, we can expect to see the water supply diminish, wildfires become more frequent, and coastal development and ecosystems under threat.  

The construction industry will not be immune from the impacts of climate change, making climate and green building the second of the big risks we face.

How does this manifest itself in our business?

  • We are writing delay provisions into our contracts around air quality impacts from wildfires in the same way we include weather days
  • Our clients are asking us questions around their options for materials with less embodied carbon
  • Global insurance underwriters are engaging us in dialog about what can be done to mitigate the impacts of climate change
  • And in the most direct, physical manifestation, we are building projects with design elements that acknowledge the inevitability of sea level rise. And I’m not referencing one project – we have three such projects in the San Francisco Bay Area alone where the ground plane elevation has been raised for this specific reason.

In California, Title 24 already requires builders like Webcor to factor energy saving into the structures we design and build. Beyond building more energy-efficient buildings, though, the industry must be resilient in the face of the changing environments we are witnessing all around us.

Rethinking Construction Materials

How we think about building has already been already influenced for more than a decade by massive swings in temperature, wind, rain, and drought. With carbon one of the biggest culprits driving climate change, we must think about that, too: How do we reduce the carbon footprint of our work, from the materials we use to the carbon required to deliver those materials and the workers to install them to the site to the carbon a building will produce over its lifespan?

For builders who might wish to continue with their old approaches to building, they will soon find they have no choice. In addition to laws and regulations forcing the industry's hand, clients are increasingly requiring contractors to demonstrate their green building capabilities. Those who don't get on board now will be left behind, which inevitably will lead to a construction landscape littered with once-proud companies that failed because of their inability to grasp just how serious the situation is. It is not a risk contractors can afford to take.

Even as the industry faces the risks inherent in not building green, there also are risks in adopting the practices that produce more environmentally sound buildings. Risk always accompanies new and different approaches to any process. When there is no clear precedent, unforeseen outcomes are always a possibility. Here are just some of the risks the industry faces as we shift toward green building:

  • Using new materials that produce less carbon or replace environmentally hazardous elements brings with it a degree of uncertainty. If we use a new kind of roofing to eliminate asphalt or rubber content or PVC, for example, it will take time to know whether it will be able to withstand the rigors of current and future weather. Among other things, this will affect the industry's ability to provide economically sound warranties for our buildings.
  • Many of the new materials we're exploring have not yet been fully tested, especially over the long term. Webcor Concrete is a vital part of Webcor's operations. The C02 emission from concrete production is proportional to the cement content used in the mix. Last year, Nature Magazine published an editorial arguing that "concrete has a colossal carbon footprint -- at least 8% of global emissions caused by humans come from the cement industry alone. We must carbonize its production." The cement industry has launched a campaign, Concrete Action for Climate, with a road map for carbon neutrality by 2050. Yet with all the possible alternatives under discussion for lowering concrete's carbon content, we don't yet know if the concrete made using these formulas will perform structurally the way concrete has performed in the past, especially over the long term. These challenges are top of mind for our Webcor Concrete leaders.
  • One additional risk to consider as we begin adopting new materials: Could these less tested products and systems lead lenders, financial markets, and insurers to shun the unknown or increase premium costs to account for the heightened risk? When our risk management team visited with global insurance underwriters in London last fall, this topic was front and center for them. In our conversations with them, they were dramatically candid about the need for the construction industry to help find solutions and stem the tide of premium increases due to losses associated with wildfire, floods, and high winds. And these discussions were not limited to physical hardening; they struck to the very heart of reduction of carbon in the built environment.

These risks seem minor compared to the risks posed by climate change itself, one of the great risks to human health and wellness we have ever encountered. The urgency with which we must approach construction's role in mitigating climate change means we have little choice but to reevaluate the very definition of risk. If ever there were risk worth taking, ensuring our survival belongs at the very top.

Change at Scale

The incremental changes our industry has made over the last century and longer will not make a meaningful difference in the fight against global warming. If we fail to innovate at the scale required to produce meaningful change, we will instead create and perpetuate tremendous risks to our health and wellness as well as the futures of our children and grandchildren. If nothing else, our buildings should promote healthy environments, not create the opposite.

Where higher-risk cutting edge green building techniques are aimed at reducing the root cause of climate change, "healthy" buildings will inevitably be a part of the solution of the impacts from climate change we are facing now. Healthy buildings are becoming more common (and desired by tenants), and the public at large understands the impact healthy buildings have on health and wellness. Planning and implementing improvements that support occupant health and wellness is a good initial step toward market differentiation.

For example, consider the smoke we have seen in recent years from forest fires: In the mild climate of California, there has traditionally been a high utilization of outside air for building ventilation systems, reducing the energy used to recirculate and temper air. You can imagine the impact of wildfires on systems that were pulling in large quantities of outside air – indoor air quality suffered greatly until building engineers could reprogram those systems to recirculate more air. Then came the pandemic – we were back to wanting high quantities of outside air to provide the ventilation that would keep people safe from COVID-19.

I’ll never forget the day that I was sitting in my San Francisco office in September 2020, when the sky was a dark orange from the heavy amount of smoke and it looked like the apocalypse had arrived. There were only a few of us in the office, but we felt trapped between toxic smoke and a highly transmissible virus.

There must be a better way. Our industry will evolve, and whether it is ultra-high filtration systems or resilience in the face of record hot and cold temperatures, our industry can implement ways to keep occupants in buildings safe and comfortable.

Just as it is important for our industry to work together on reducing the impact of buildings on climate change, so too must we work together to create healthier spaces. The risk of failing to do so arguably outweighs any potential risk that comes from making a well-informed attempt to use or implement an innovative new product or process, even if these products or processes lack clear precedent.

The risks of climate change are unlike any we have faced. We must all advance construction at the greatest scale possible to avoid the catastrophic risk to us all.

Previous Entries in this Series

Click here to read this article on LinkedIn, where it was originally posted.