Hurricane Sandy ravaged parts of New Jersey and New York and, Vivien Li, president of the non-profit waterfront advocacy group The Boston Harbor Association in Massachusetts, says that her city narrowly escaped ruin. “Boston was fortunate. If Sandy had hit Boston five-and-a-half hours earlier at high tide, it would have been quite devastating,” asserts Li. “Opinions about the causes of sea level rise may differ, but few debate it’s happening. People here can see it for themselves.”

Northeastern U.S. sea levels are expected to rise four to eight inches by the 2020s and one to two feet by 2050. If left unaltered, residences and businesses near the coastal floodplain will suffer extensive damage. So how are cities, architects, builders, and building owners preparing?

Reducing the vulnerability of buildings and infrastructure has many facets. Two professionals at Boston-based Partners HealthCare, senior project manager David S. Burson, AIA, and manager of sustainable initiatives Hubert Murray, are addressing these issues through projects like the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. The new hospital is part of a mixed-use redevelopment of the former Charlestown Navy Yard that includes residential, institutional, retail and recreational projects. 

“For the hospital, we elevated the grade as high as we could,” says Burson. “We also made emergency generators programmatically separate from other systems and placed HVAC equipment on higher flood levels, so they can continue to operate during a flood event. And operable windows ensure access to fresh air if people are trapped inside for an extended duration.”

These lessons transfer to new residential developments, and some are feasible in existing buildings as well. Reprogramming elevators so that they don’t automatically return to the basement during emergencies and become flooded will minimize damage. An inventory of places where water can seep into buildings such as vents and underground garages will shine light on potential methods to protect the system. 

Condominium owners can take personal action. “Residents can keep precious items out of basement storage, and people who live on lower levels may swap out mold-susceptible rugs and carpeting with flooring that can withstand episodic floods,” advises Li.

Building owners should have printed blueprints of the building and written emergency plans in case power outages prevent computer access. “Our industry has developed a reliance on systems and as our technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, we have to consider what will happen if it breaks down.” Murray says. “We need to return to passive systems that provide healthy living environments and operational redundancies so they continue to function in a crisis.” 

Maintaining existing waterfront cities will require investment, but Li says that systematic planning will make changes feasible. “There’s still time to plan for 2050, so you can amortize cost of what you need to do. As retrofits arise, consider changes in this context. Your next upgrade may move mechanical equipment to the roof–or at minimum, out of the basement,” says Li.

This is the first of several articles examining how the building industry and building owners are addressing future effects of climate change. The forward-looking angle is a key component of Vision 2020. Building on its successful launch in 2012, ECOHOME’s Vision 2020 program continues in 2013, focusing on eight critical areas in sustainability. Track our progress all year as our panel of visionary focus-area chairs, our editors, and leading researchers, practitioners, and advocates share their perspectives on initiating, tracking, and ensuring progress toward sustainable priorities and goals in residential construction between now and 2020. The program will culminate in an exclusive Vision 2020 Forum in Washington, D.C., in September 2013, and with a special edition of ECOHOME in Winter 2013. Click here to see the 2012 Wrap-Up.