Resilience is already a hot topic in the commercial property sector, but planners, designers and builders are discovering that they need to expand their thinking about what it means.
“It’s time for all of us to broaden our concept,” said Mary Rowe, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Urban Institute (CUI).
“The conventional idea is that resilience is about hardening buildings to withstand severe weather and the effects of climate change to make them more sustainable,” she said during a recent CUI panel discussion exploring disasters and civic emergencies. “But resilience is also about how we can modify and accommodate existing buildings to make them more useful to the people who use them in the 21st century.”
While the effects of climate change are extensive and increasingly require emergency responses, coping with disasters is only one aspect of resilience, agreed Daniel Aldrich, director of the security and resilience studies program at Northeastern University in Boston.
In addition to building breakwalls or shoring up buildings, municipalities, developers, owners and managers also need to look at “social infrastructure,” Mr. Aldrich said.
“Part of that is building relationships and moving outside of our silos to recognize that everyone has a role to play in reducing these risks – not just disaster and emergency management professionals,” Mr. Aldrich said.
Many projects both in Canada and internationally offer practical examples of this wider idea of resilience, said Jennifer Barrett, senior planner and lead of the CUI’s Applied Solutions Lab.
In addition to fixing up buildings and making them more energy efficient, resilience can also mean reconfiguring structures to serve new commercial and retail tenants and to recognize how work patterns have changed since the pandemic began in 2020, she explained.
“A good example is the old Hudson’s Bay Co. store in downtown Winnipeg,” Ms. Barrett said. In April, Hudson’s Bay announced that it is gifting the 600,000-square-foot building, constructed in 1926, to the Southern Chiefs’ Organization, representing 34 Manitoba First Nations.
The six-storey former department store building is to be converted into a mixed-use space with 300 housing units, two restaurants, a health care facility, a child-care centre, a museum and an art gallery. An atrium with a café featuring Indigenous cuisine is also planned for the site.
“In every city, people are reconsidering their relationships to buildings where they work and whether they want to travel from home to work every day,” Ms. Barrett said.
Being prepared for physical climate risk, primarily flooding, should factor into preparedness by commercial real estate owners.— Blair Feltmate, head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at University of Waterloo.
In October, CBRE reported that downtown office vacancy rates were at 16.9 per cent, with vacancies in Calgary at 32.9 per cent and Halifax at 18.8 per cent.
Only Toronto and Vancouver showed relatively low office vacancy rates, at 7.1 and 11.8 per cent respectively.
While any building can theoretically be made more resilient if money is no object, some building types are better candidates than others, Ms. Barrett said.
“The most feasible are heritage buildings, built before 1950, with high ceilings and windows that open. The second types are mid-century brutalist buildings [primarily made of concrete], from the mid-50s to the 1980s,” she said.
It’s possible to convert such buildings to mixed-use, including affordable housing units so people can live near their workplaces, Ms. Barrett explained. For example, about half of the brutalist Centennial Building in downtown Halifax is being turned into housing by Sidewalk Developments Ltd., she said.
“The third good candidates are steel-frame buildings. Many of these would need a lot of work, but they have a lot of interior floor space with few columns, so there’s a lot of room to configure them,” she said.
BOMA Canada, the umbrella group that represents building owners and maintenance administrators, has put out comprehensive guidelines for resilience to immediate risks from catastrophes.
The first guide, issued in 2019, aimed to increase awareness of operational resilience, while the second, which came out this year, covers how owners and managers can handle risk and protect the value of their properties in the face of increasing environmental and other risks.
“The world economy is in transition, as are the demands and dynamics of commercial real estate. The recent pandemic has been a catalyst for the changes we are all experiencing. You can allow change and failure to control your operations and value, or you can manage the effects of change and control your value,” the 2022 BOMA guide states.
So far, the biggest threats to commercial real estate resilience are still from flooding, said Blair Feltmate, head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo.
“Being prepared for physical climate risk, primarily flooding, should factor into preparedness by commercial real estate owners, the institutional investors who assess the value of properties as well as residential housing for the work force that works from home,” he said.
He questions recent actions such as Ontario Premier Doug Ford government’s Bill 23, passed Nov. 28, which weakens the role of conservation authorities and could potentially open flood plains to new construction.
“This could make Ontario less resilient,” Dr. Feltmate said.