Constructing a Building That Can Withstand Mother Nature

No matter what we do to prepare, there’s no controlling Mother Nature. And unfortunately, it seems that every time we turn around, wildfires, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters wreak havoc on people and places in our country and all over the world.

According to the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, “The United States has sustained 298 weather and climate disasters since 1980 where overall damages/costs reached or exceeded $1 billion (including CPI adjustment to 2021). The total cost of these 298 events exceeds $1.975 trillion.”

In 2021 alone, as of early July, 8 weather/climate disaster events have hit the U.S., resulting in the deaths of 331 people and losses exceeding $1 billion. 

Understanding the forces of Mother Nature will allow engineers and those responsible for construction to plan and develop structures able to tolerate even the most hazardous conditions. Be it inclement weather or dangerous occurrences such as tsunamis, tornadoes, or earthquakes, the best designs plan for the worst case scenarios. 

“No matter how functional or aesthetically pleasing a building may be, one of the biggest pieces of planning and development is durability. Can a structure hold up to extreme conditions and/or a potential natural disaster? Good structural design and engineering is all about proactivity and planning for anything that could happen that might compromise the safety of a building and its occupants,” said Daniel Connolly, the owner of Connolly Engineering, a civil and structural engineering firm serving the New York City  and Hudson Valley areas.

Designing a Structure That Stands Up

To create a structure strong enough to withstand weather and other potential natural disasters, what factors must structural engineers consider when planning and designing a building?

Understanding the Area & Environment

Disaster resilience is the enhanced understanding and anticipation of disasters leading to better planning and as a result, a reduction of disaster losses. 

Now more than ever, builders, structural engineers, architects, and designers need to create structures that can withstand the forces of nature AND be able to recover quickly should a disaster strike. 

While disaster resilience can be complex and expensive, studies show that emergency relief and recovery expenses are more costly than resilient construction. Disaster resilience allows for engineers and others to plan accordingly in areas prone to certain types of disasters. For example, materials, processes, and structure shape/size will differ from the earthquake and fire prone areas such as California versus the hurricane zones in the south.

As part of disaster resilience is understanding that the following weather conditions will affect the construction of a building:

  • Humidity: Repeated wetting and drying associated with condensation can lead to an accelerated rate of corrosion or loosening of building materials, thus compromising the structural integrity.
  • Snow loads: Conditions such as snowfall, drift patterns from surrounding buildings, exposure to high winds, building positioning, and surrounding trees must be considered.
  • Exterior temperature: The typical frost depth can have an impact on the building’s foundation.
  • Wind: High winds are considered the leading cause of damage in tornadoes and hurricanes, and damage can be devastating when wind speeds exceed 100 miles per hour.

Materials Matter

To withstand Mother Nature, engineers must use building materials with known strength and durability such as concrete, steel, and timber. 

There’s a reason why structures built 1,500 years ago in China have survived multiple earthquakes and have even resisted demolition by modern construction equipment. Ancient scientists developed a nearly indestructible material by mixing sticky rice soup with heated limestone and then exposing it to water. In doing so, they created the world’s first composite mortar, which was used to bind and fill spaces between bricks, stone blocks and other construction materials. To this day, experts maintain that it remains the best available material for restoring ancient buildings. 

Right here in the U.S., take a look at the design and construction of One World Trade in New York City. At 1,776 feet and the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, it needed to be strong enough to withstand powerful winds and any pressure from potential terrorist attacks. Using a fortress-like reinforced concrete base, the tower’s entire façade consists of steel panels and blast-resistant glass. 

Put simply, the right materials give buildings a better chance of fighting the forces of Mother Nature.

Strong Foundations are Critical

While it may seem obvious, buildings that can handle dangerous weather conditions and natural disasters are strong from the ground up.

Structural failure can be progressive, where one element can trigger the collapse of another. This means that it’s crucial for engineers to create strong connections between the structure and foundation. 

Even during the construction phase, a building must be braced, a construction technique used to improve the structural performance by evenly distributing loads and increasing safety. Bracing not only helps maintain the proper position of building elements, but can resist wind forces and other inclement weather conditions until everything is attached. 

To combat lateral loads, load path continuity from the roof all the way through to the foundation is critical. Proper roof framing attachment to the main structure is critical in coastal hurricane prone areas.

Constructing Buildings To Weather the Storm…and Beyond!

As a leading civil and structural engineering firm in the greater New York area, Connolly Engineering takes the responsibility of construction that can withstand inclement and other natural disasters incredibly seriously. Through thoughtful design, new technologies, and advanced materials, our buildings will be better equipped to withstand the forces of Mother Nature. 

We are committed to construction that will not just stand the test of time, but keep those lives inside the building protected. Learn more about our company and services here

Let’s talk today about how we can bring innovation and expertise to your next construction project.