Ryan Colker
Ryan Colker

Natural disasters are among infrastructure’s worst enemies. How can communities across the U.S. be confident their road, water, power, and communication networks will withstand Mother Nature’s unpredictable rampages?

Ryan Colker of the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) says that assurance hinges on the planning and investments communities make before disaster strikes, knowing their risks and vulnerabilities before they are tested. Ryan, who is director of NIBS’ Consultative Council and a presidential adviser, is bringing the important findings of fresh investment-related research to the Infrastructure Imperative conference Nov. 13-15 in Cleveland – and in so doing, brings practical pathways for resilient infrastructure very close to home for the professional guardians of the built environment.

Today’s interview with Ryan underscores – once again – (if you’ve looked at the speaker list or read our interview series) the caliber of speakers and breadth of relevant, actionable subject matter the editors of Architect, Concrete Construction, and Public Works have thoughtfully curated for infrastructure advocates, designers, builders, and decision-makers.

From streamlining project delivery to seemingly futuristic productivity tools to durability engineering, Infrastructure Imperative is your firsthand opportunity to mentally wrestle with solutions to reverse the poor condition of U.S. infrastructure and personally impact your own community. Not to mention the valuable face time with your peers from coast to coast. Miss it at your own professional peril.

Public Works: What is going to be the most important takeaway from your talk on community resilience and infrastructure?
Ryan: Identifying the most cost-effective strategies for different infrastructure assets.

We've been doing a lot of work around cost/benefit ratios, building off a study we did in 2005 that looked at a very limited set of strategies. Now we're going back through and identifying additional strategies, and for the first time we're looking at types of investment in infrastructure-related mitigation.

In late October, we'll be introducing the results from that study – so at the conference, I’ll provide very timely information around infrastructure-related investments and identifying cost-effective approaches.

PW: Are you going to discuss strategies from a “disaster-proofing” perspective, or is that just one facet of the resiliency conversation you're presenting?
Ryan: We certainly look a lot at natural disasters and the benefit of identifying strategies pre-disaster rather than post-disaster – and making the smart investments upfront. Even if doing that intitially costs more, you’ll reap greater benefits should a disaster occur.

We've also started looking at how to address a future climate risk and identifying the challenges different infrastructure types would face over their lifetime ... considering how you evolve the design and standards processes to incorporate some level of uncertainty relative to future risks, but understanding the risk is there.

PW: What are the greatest vulnerabilities most communities face?
Ryan: It varies widely across the country, but flooding is at the top of the list pretty broadly across many communities.

I would add to that the overarching challenge of identifying their climate-related risks and what that means for their community. That's fairly universal, and it's pretty huge.

PW: Give us some success stories where your guidelines and recommendations have resulted in a community victory.
Ryan: We’re focused primarily at the national level, encouraging policies or advancing building codes, but some communities have identified and are addressing their risks in a holistic way that provides benefits beyond their disaster-mitigation efforts.

Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is one example. They had buildings, right up next to the Cedar River, that would frequently flood. The city bought and demolished those properties to create greenways for the river to flood into. The rest of the time, residents enjoy park spaces along the award-winning redeveloped riverfront.

We've also seen an example in the climate risk area. Some railroad infrastructure in southern California that hugs the coast could be vulnerable to sea-level rise, so it’s designed with the ability to fairly easily elevate tracks further if future risks materialize.

Resilience is all about planning for potential additional risks.

PW: What’s the No. 1 hurdle that gets in the way of states and municipalities adopting the Consultative Council’s guidelines, codes, and best practices?
Ryan: Probably the biggest one, and this won't come as any surprise, is financing – understanding who benefits versus who pays – which often doesn't align very well.

A resident or commercial building owner who wants to elevate the structure will benefit from the effort but will also spend a lot to do it. Insurance companies, financers for that building, and the community will also benefit. How do we align all of those benefits to make the best possible investment?

Figuring out how to address those particular issues is the biggest challenge.

PW: What have you come up with so far?
Ryan: We’ve been exploring comprehensive public-private incentive strategies – something we're calling incentivization – where all stakeholders come together to identify what they can add toward supporting those types of investments and what kind of benefits they receive as a result.

PW: What exactly does the Consultative Council do that is vital to helping America build more resiliently?
Ryan: We assemble high-level construction-community representatives to make recommendations directly to the executive and legislative branches of government to improve our nation's buildings and infrastructure. The National Institute of Building Sciences is the unbiased forum for discussing issues and identifying opportunities.

Two major efforts are:

· The industry statement on resilience, with 50 organizations coming together to recognize the importance of resilience and work collaboratively to identify different pathways moving forward. We've led that effort with the American Institute of Architects, but we’ve also engaged the American Society of Civil Engineers, landscape architects, facility managers – pretty much all aspects of the built environment.

· Developing benchmarks communities can use to understand where they are relative to resilience, an effort that's primarily through the Alliance for National and Community Resilience. The alliance has identified about 19 functional areas important to resilience for water, energy, transportation, and communications. We're working to identify key aspects of resilience within each of those sectors.

The one other important avenue we're working on is identifying the cost/benefit ratios for investing in different mitigation strategies.

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