Illya Azaroff

+Lab Architect’s Illya Azaroff reports from the trenches on disaster rebuilding progress and roadblocks. [Photo: Anja Hitzenberger]

“I believe there is some urgency in updating the building code.”

In the U.S. alone, costs from natural disasters topped $300 billion in 2017, and that doesn’t include damages from the new reality of extreme weather—thunderstorm and hail damage account for the greatest losses in annual insurance claims. The major threats aren’t confined to coastal areas with rampant flooding or the spike in wildfires in the western U.S.

Illya Azaroff is the director of design at +Lab Architect and an associate professor at the New York City College of Technology. He recently received a Presidential Citation from AIA New York State for the Disaster Assistance Training program he led that will ultimately result in hundreds of licensed architects and engineers equipped to properly assess building damage in the aftermath of a disaster.

As the founding co-chair of the AIA New York Design for Risk & Reconstruction Committee, he has been lauded for his work prototyping disaster relief shelters and rapid response systems. He works with government agencies at all levels on issues related to resilience, including having advised on the Federal Disaster Recovery Framework. He has a front-line vantage point on the struggles to both rebuild following catastrophes, as well as how to better prepare and fortify our homes, buildings, and communities to better withstand natural disasters.

Ishinomaki Japan earthquake tsunami

Ishinomaki, Japan, a week after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated the area in 2011. [Photo: U.S. Marine Corps, Lance Cpl. Ethan Johnson/Released]

gb&d: You visited Japan to evaluate the rebuilding process after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. How do they approach reconstruction versus similar efforts in the U.S.?

Azaroff: The basic differences can be boiled down to funding and coordination. The Japanese have disaster preparedness embedded in their culture. It’s no surprise they have a comprehensive mitigation plan that stretches across an entire region. Spending upwards of half a trillion dollars, with more to come, substantiates a concerted effort by the federal authority for a collective response.

Here, we spend a mere fraction compared to their level of investment and do not coordinate across state or political boundaries without entanglements. The expectation is for private investment to make up the difference. That investment has not come forward in any real way, leaving major gaps in all facets of resilient building measures at a regional and national level.

The Japanese have also published a timeline for implementation of all resilient measures across the affected region. This leads to accountability when you routinely see progress, or lack thereof, in the news journals in that country. And by the way, many of the areas are on target for completion dates. Here in New York we are still struggling to merely rebuild a few thousand homes through government programs, whereas in Japan they rebuild whole communities and have successfully relocated tens of thousands of people into robust communities, with new infrastructure.

gb&d: We just passed the five-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy. You’ve been involved in those rebuilding initiatives. What are your concerns in establishing a foothold in resilience in the region?

Azaroff: There are a great many people working toward building resilience throughout this entire region, and everyone has their heart in the right place. However, I’m concerned that there is very little coordination with the various projects that are moving along to achieve true, comprehensive resilience.

Of greater concern is the steep learning curve for everyone involved—from governing bodies to the AEC industry and especially within the labor force. Building to be resilient requires an understanding of material assemblies beyond specific trades, learning new assemblies with old materials, in addition to incorporating new project delivery methods. We have experienced the steep learning curve on many of our projects, which is lengthening the building process a great deal.

News messaging is another challenge. If you ask most New Yorkers, they think we are better off today than we were before the storm. In general, that is probably correct, but not to any great degree. Most believe the billions of dollars that flowed in here and a few glossy images on the Internet or front page of the newspaper make resilience an established field. Fact is we are not there yet and not even close to where we need to be.

Hurricane Sandy

Severe damage from Hurricane Sandy to the New Jersey coast in 2012. [Photo: U.S. Air Force, Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen/Released]

gb&d: How have attitudes changed among policy makers and within building departments in terms of prioritizing resilient approaches to development?

Azaroff: I think there’s a bit of a proactive versus reactive thinking that goes on within the governing bodies—especially at building departments and in code enforcement. Most codes are reactive to the last great storms or negative circumstance. Since Sandy we have incorporated several areas of resilience into the code, such as backup generation, water security for buildings over a certain height, and increased wind resistance requirements.

Unfortunately, the proactive work that recognizes the risk and designs and implements those measures does not receive the attention nor funding if they are city, state, or federal backed projects. Essentially, we are rebuilding a little bit better than what was there before rather than accounting for what we truly know now about the effects of climate change, and if we can build well beyond the code in a well-informed, proactive way.

gb&d: Is the initial cost premium still an objection to signing off on more stringent resilient design strategies on the client side? And if so, how do you suggest the AEC community respond?

Azaroff: Some clients are still balking at the initial increases to proposed budgets. But if you can take the time and explain how fast the payback can be, as well as risk reduction and improved safety from resilient building measures, then you can generally convince the client it is worth the upfront investment.

I like to reference the findings from a recent report by the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS), projecting that every $1 spent today on mitigation saves as much as $6 in the future—up from a figure of $4 a few years ago. That is really an incredible opportunity cost and helps make “selling resilience” quite a lot easier.

gb&d: Is there any urgency to raise the building codes to account for increased natural disasters and the massive financial losses that accompany them?

Azaroff: Anyone engaged in truly factoring resilient measures into the projects are going well beyond current code. You can also get excellent guidance from NIBS through the FEMA library as well as best practices of the AIA. Code is an absolute minimum of building practice and achieving resilience with the current state of codes dictates that we must build beyond the current minimum standards of the building code.

I believe there is some urgency in updating the building code. An updated robust code, recognizing mitigation measures, is needed and raises all standards for resilience across the country. The current code is updated every three years by the International Code Council, and the last round incorporated more stringent wind and water measures, along with maintaining good water supply to tall buildings.

There are several resilience rating systems coming out I’m keeping a close eye on that may assist in getting a handle on what mitigation measures mean for the built environment.

gb&d: How are insurance companies reacting, and what should home and business owners know?

Azaroff: The insurance companies are taking several paths regarding buildings at risk. There has always been a repeated loss clause that allows for insurance companies to no longer ensure properties that have had multiple instances of catastrophic damage, which calls into question how, or if, rebuilding can take place in coastal regions.

On the other hand, the Insurance Institute for Business Home & Safety has put forward a different type of solution through best practices and how to build a more robust, resilient structure. The program is called FORTIFIED and can be applied to residential as well as commercial structures. They offer a reduction in the end-user’s insurance on the structure if you follow the guidelines during the construction process. This type of incentive for better buildings is a good piece of the puzzle in achieving resilience and encouraging the design of much safer homes and buildings.

gb&d: You and others in the industry helped to create the AIA Disaster Assistance Handbook. How can it be useful for architects?

Azaroff: It has information for all levels of government and local municipalities and essential information for AIA chapters and architects on what steps to take after a disaster. It also highlights proactive measures you can take up in your communities through advocacy efforts and design approaches.

gb&d: A tough question, for sure, but if you had a magic wand to do away with what you consider to be the biggest roadblock to better planning efforts, what would you use it for?

Azaroff: Well, I wish I actually had three wishes, starting with a commitment to suitable funding, followed by adequate professional training at all levels, and then finishing with improved public awareness through proper, constant messaging. If I had to pick one, it would the messaging about resilience. The general public has been lulled to a false sense of security given the current state of communications regarding resilience. Ideally, I would wave a magic wand and give an update daily in the news regarding progress on building projects related to comprehensive resilience. That way we could keep track of what is being done and see how it is being coordinated across all necessary entities.

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