NIBS Works with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to Protect Our Buildings from Threats

DHS worked with NIBS to start an Advanced Materials Council that created a database of advanced and high-performance materials to help foster innovation and research collaboration. There is clearly a need for new materials that bring together strength, sustainability and energy efficiency, and there’s work going on in those areas.

r: Is there a cost premium to designing and building resilient buildings?

Grant: There could be, depending on how you approach it. There are aspects of design that are just about how you configure the building and specify components, which may not cost significantly more. Achieving higher levels of resilience would generally have a higher first cost, but depending on how you evaluated it, achieving higher resilience could have a lower or even a much lower cost during the building’s life if the building were subjected to some kind of catastrophic event. If the building is strong enough to incur less damage, the cost to return it to operation would be considerably lower than having to demolish the building and rebuild. Evaluating the whole building life-cycle costs, or total costs of ownership, is one way you can determine whether it’s worth making an investment to make a building stronger to withstand hazard events that might take place.

A focus on life-cycle costs is already happening in the evaluation of energy savings and carbon reduction. However, because you pay an energy bill every month, you can see the impact right away and measure its value over time. Reducing costs associated with an earthquake or tornado is more difficult to evaluate because you can’t predict when these events will take place. But if you’re in an area with a measurable probability of such an event, you can do a calculation that shows the payback.

Working for DHS, NIBS assembled a team of experts in modeling to create a system for conducting such analyses. The Owners Performance Requirements Tool and a report that describes its methodology and use are available at Though only available currently for analyzing building envelopes (it is being expanded to cover all primary building systems), it illustrates a methodology for decision making based on analyzing the effects of increasing performance for a range of building attributes.

r: When it comes to existing buildings, are there tools to help identify areas of weakness?

Grant: DHS S&T has done a lot to identify and measure resilience in existing buildings and infrastructure. DHS’ formula identifies resilience as a product of resourcefulness: the ability to skillfully prepare for, respond to, and manage a crisis or disruption as it unfolds; robustness: how the building and operations are configured to withstand a disaster; and recovery: the types of programs in place to return the facility to working order after an event.

DHS’ Integrated Rapid Visual Screening [IRVS] tool, which became available in 2011, is very thorough and can be used to evaluate a building’s level of resiliency and the amount of risk it has to different undesirable events, including natural and manmade hazard events. It is an accepted principle that you have to first be able to measure something to improve it. Through its software program and accompanying manual, IRVS establishes a baseline to work from, showing how a building and its operations measure up to the evaluation system that is part of the IRVS program.

r: Because it’s a fairly new program, have many building owners used IRVS?

Grant: DHS worked with public- and private-sector organizations to develop the program and conduct field studies. In Chicago, DHS tested IRVS on the Willis Tower—formerly Sears Tower—and several other buildings. A number of buildings in New York City and Los Angeles also tested IRVS.

About the Author

Christina A. Koch
Christina A. Koch is editorial director and associate publisher of retrofit.

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