Building Design with Sea Rise in Mind


There’s an unusual occupant in the penthouse suite of many Manhattan high-rise buildings today. It’s not America’s wealthy elite or mice with multi-million dollar views. The premium, top-floor space is increasingly occupied by emergency generators meant to sustain building residents when disaster strikes.

“Along coastlines and lake shores and riverfronts across the country,” David Dunlapjan wrote recently in “Building to the Sky, With a plan for Rising Waters,” “[…]tenants and homeowners, regulators and planners, private developers, and public institutions are embracing the accumulating evidence of climate change and fortifying buildings and infrastructure against rising sea levels and ever more intense storms.”

In fact, a new report released in January from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association warns that coastal regions of the US could experience sea level rises of as much as 8 feet by 2100, with the North East most at risk. New York City, it seems, is especially vulnerable because of its low-lying, densely populated real estate, which is also ultra-valuable.

As preventative action, in 2014, New York State began requiring that mechanical systems on buildings built in former floodplain be installed above the “design flood elevation,” one or two feet higher than the highest expected water level.  Resilient design has also become an ever-higher priority among the City’s engineers and architects.

While it’s hard to imagine skyscrapers being vulnerable to flood damage, as many eastern US cities discovered through Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy, there are significant risks since apartment dwellers are likely to be cut off from essential infrastructure like water, power, and communications technology. As the NOAA report indicates, “Rising seas will dramatically increase the vulnerability of this growing population, along with critical infrastructure related to transportation, energy, trade, military readiness, and coastal ecosystems and the supporting services they provide (Parris et al., 2012; Hall et al., 2016).”

But resilient architecture and reliable backup power have not only become increasingly commonplace, they have actually become a selling point for New Yorkers who lived through Hurricane Sandy. Today’s real estate developers are capitalizing on the concern for power reliability by adding property value with additional, in-house generators to provide reliable sources of energy.  

Beyond essential power needs, some buildings like The American Copper Buildings, near the Empire State Building, are being designed so that tenants can live in their apartments for at least a week if the area floods. In fact, developers have gone so far as to install enough power to maintain a refrigerator and one outlet in every single apartment.

To produce sufficient amounts of energy in The American Copper Buildings, engineers installed five 400-kilowatt gas generators in the west half of the 48th floor of the north tower and placed a switchgear in what would normally be penthouse space. “That’s our lifeline,” said Gregg Pasquarelli, a partner with Shop Architects, one of the firms that collaborated on the project’s design. “If you have your phone and your refrigerator, you can survive. You could probably make it a week with those things.”

Has sea rise affected the design of buildings and infrastructure within your organization?  What resiliency measures beyond backup power should building managers in potential flood areas consider? DE_bug_web

  • Jonathan McClelland.

    It’s a nice idea, but really, just how many high rise dwellers could make it 3 days, let alone a week without an accessible Starbucks?


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