January 6, 2014

Welcome to the new normal

Construction Corner | Korky Koroluk

Snug in my home office in east-end Ottawa, reading the reports about the ice-storm that swept across eastern Canada during the weekend before Christmas, it's hard not to recall the ice storm that was so devastating early in 1998.

Some people were without power then for as much as four days, and many called it the worst natural catastrophe in Canadian history.

Whether that’s true or not, it was a bad one.

Now, in a year that gave us things like the flooding in Calgary and wild weather events all over the world, one thinks that these aberrant events or “natural” catastrophes are likely to happen only once or twice in a person’s lifetime.

Korky Koroluk

Construction Corner

Korky Koroluk

But, science has been telling us for years that such events are likely to increase in both frequency and severity as the world warms.

Welcome to the new normal.

All these weird events have given rise to a new set of concerns, many of which will affect the construction industry.

Building for resilience is one.

That means building so that when your city takes a heavy hit, it can continue to function at a reasonable level.

That, in turn, means changes in the way we design and build our systems for public transportation, sewer and water, and electrical generation and distribution.

Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans in 2005 was perhaps the most dramatic illustration of how vulnerable our buildings are.

Hurricane Irene, which swept up the American east coast in 2011, underscored that.

Then Hurricane Sandy, which hit New York City and the Jersey Shore late in 2012, demonstrated that cities, as they currently exist, simply can’t withstand the deeper floodwaters and higher winds that go with such intense storms.

We now know that a fair-sized chunk of Calgary couldn’t withstand them either.

Neither could the town of High River to the south.

Building homes on floodplains, always a bad idea, is going to be curtailed in Alberta. But, in all the news coverage on the Alberta floods, another concern got short shrift.

Ask yourself where most of our water treatment plants are located, where you’ll find many of our sewage treatment plants. Yep. On floodplains.

Now people are beginning to talk about distributed sewage treatment plants — that is, smaller plants dotted here and there around a city, but connected, so that if one goes off-line, others can pick up the slack.

Now, too, Delmarva Power, a utility in Delaware, hopes to protect against power outages by investing heavily in wind and solar power.

It is betting that a network of fuel cells clustered at safe locations, can provide a round-the-clock baseload source of electricity for times when wind and solar can’t get the job done.

It’s not surprising to learn that several manufacturers have jumped into that market and that a lot of planners are watching Delaware closely.

Companies in Canada, Norway, Sweden, France and the United States are installing or testing systems to retrieve heat energy from the raw sewage that flows beneath our feet.

Modular construction is likely to continue its growth trend, driven in part by a system being used to build a 32-storey apartment building in Brooklyn, N.Y.

You build the modules in a factory, truck them to the building site and hoist them into place.

There are savings in labour costs, savings in waste reduction, and a workforce can be more productive (and happier) simply because it’s working indoors.

Climate adaptation services, a specialty that didn’t even exist a few years ago, is expected to grow by between 12 and 20 per cent annually, becoming a $2 billion global market by 2020.

Since many built assets are vulnerable to a stormier climate, more attention is being paid to things like land-use planning, transportation, power production, coastal protection, protection of water resources and agriculture.

Korky Koroluk is a regular freelance contributor to the Journal of Commerce. Send comments or questions to

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