Betting on a seismic shift

New earthquake building codes and rating system, crumbling U.S. infrastructure combine to create enticing market in resiliency.

By Richard Massey
Managing Editor

With a new business segment opening up in the world of seismic assessments and resiliency planning, four firms in the Pacific Northwest have formed a partnership to capture a piece of what’s expected to be an emerging, and even lucrative, market in earthquake and disaster preparedness.

Salus Resilience (Portland, OR), is comprised of four people who bring four disciplines to the table – geotechnical engineering, structural engineering, economic planning, and architecture – or enough to do the assessment, planning and design of a resiliency model for a company, a town, city, or county, and set up the finances to make it work.

The four firms are Hart Crowser, Jay Raskin Architect, WRK Engineers, and ECONorthwest, and the respective associates are Allison Pyrch, Jay Raskin, Brian Knight, and Ed MacMullan.

“This is an upcoming market,” says Pyrch, a geotechnical engineer who has toured both Chile and Japan in the wake of monster quakes in those countries.

The opportunity in resiliency planning is expected to be aided in part by the U.S. Resiliency Council, which officially launched in November 2015. The organization will essentially function like the U.S. Green Building Council, which certifies buildings for LEED. The USRC will credential engineers who wish to rate buildings for their clients, using a system based on a scale from one to five that measures Safety, Damage, and Recovery.

Like LEED, a building with a five-star rating brings value to the market. And it is the financial incentives that could bring resilience into the mainstream.

“This is creating an economic driver behind resiliency,” Pyrch says.

Also playing into the emergence of the resiliency market is the state of U.S. infrastructure, Pyrch says. Much of it needs to be rebuilt, and when it is, new seismic and environmental standards like those advocated by USRC and USGBC will likely come to the forefront, Pyrch says. According to the 2013 infrastructure report compiled by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the nation’s overall grade is a D-plus across 16 infrastructure segments, and to improve that grade, the ASCE estimates that upwards of $3.6 trillion needs to be invested by 2020.

A 2015 article that appeared in The New Yorker spread fear throughout the Pacific Northwest. Titled “The Really Big One,” the article detailed the potential of the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which runs for 700 miles from mid-Vancouver Island to Northern California, to bring devastation to the region.

Overdue for a quake, the Cascadia is large enough to unleash a tsunami, much like the one that crashed against Japan in 2011, killing about 16,000 people, and touching off the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

“We’ve been saying that for years, but once it’s in The New Yorker, everyone believes it,” Pyrch said, referencing the heightened interest in earthquake assessment along the West Coast.

New earthquake building codes have been issued through executive order at the federal level, and an early warning system is in advanced testing in California, Oregon, and Washington. But the Pacific Northwest is not the only area at risk. The U.S. Geological Survey issued a report last year saying upwards of 143 million people in the 48 contiguous states could be exposed to damage caused by an earthquake, with the top ten susceptible states being California, Washington, Oregon, Utah, Nevada, Arkansas, Tennessee, South Carolina, Missouri, and Illinois.

National awareness of resiliency, or lack thereof, was triggered by storms, not earthquakes. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 killed over 1,200 people, and Hurricane Sandy in 2012 caused around $75 billion in damage. Regionally, Oklahoma is dealing with resiliency as the state has been rocked with a recent spate of earthquakes, including a 5.1 magnitude on February 13. Responding to dire warnings about fracking, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission implemented a curb on the volume of wastewater injected into disposal wells over a 5,281-square mile area in the western part of the state.

The resiliency council was in the works since 2011. Nearly 70 founding members raised about $570,000 in startup funding to get the nonprofit up off the ground. Now that the agency is operational at its headquarters in San Francisco, engineers are starting to take notice, says USRC co-founder and structural engineer Evan Reis.

“It’s been very popular,” says Reis. “This is finally putting the engineering quality in the forefront. Engineers have felt that LEED has always lacked a vital component – resiliency. It’s not enough to be environmentally friendly. It has to last.”

Reis’ organization already has 70 engineers certified for assessments, and is looking to certify several hundred more. In the future, Reis and is colleagues want to include rating systems for tornadoes, hurricanes and floods.

“The sky is the limit, depending on how it takes off,” Reis says. “This is the next big push in the A/E industry.”

Posted in Archives | October 19th, 2016 by