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A $400 Billion Question: Preparing for the Influx of Seawall Construction

The Construction Industry’s Role in Building Waterfront Resilience

According to recent numbers, the world population is headed quickly towards eight billion people. Now, consider some more figures: “In the United States, almost 40% of the population lives in relatively high-population-density coastal areas,” says the National Ocean Service, adding that “Globally, eight of the world’s 10 largest cities are near a coast, according to the U.N. Atlas of the Oceans.”

The takeaway? A large percentage of the world’s population is slated to face sea level rises that could destroy their homes, businesses, agricultural fields and more. While those in developed countries have the ability to move and remake their lives elsewhere, that’s not a privilege that many in the world can claim.

This means that those of us in the construction industry have a big responsibility in the coming decades. Protecting cities against rising sea levels have become a chief concern for city and infrastructure planning over the last few years. Luckily, as we know from endless historical proofs, the economic benefit is a huge driver of success, and there are serious economic incentives for building companies to invest in seawall construction.

That’s not to say there are no challenges or upfront costs. Far from it. Moreover, seawalls are just one of the solutions to rising sea levels, so we will have to weigh their role in the grander coastal engineering plan. What we do know is that whatever its form, water will play a huge role in our future. Let’s take a look at the place seawall construction will play in the fight to preserve our cities and ways of life.

The High Cost of Seawall Construction

According to the Center for Climate Integrity, an environmental advocacy group, seawall construction for storm surge protection for coastal cities in the U.S. will cost around $400 billion in the next 20 years, as reported in Yale 360. The report adds that “That’s nearly the price of building the 47,000 miles of the interstate highway system, which took four decades and cost more than $500 billion in today’s dollars.”

Keep in mind, these numbers are for the U.S. alone. Multiply that out to vulnerable coastlines around the world, from South America to Asia, Europe to Africa, Australia and the rest of North America, and the costs are nearly unimaginable.

Again, though, with challenges such as these comes great opportunity. Those construction firms who can muster resources and expertise to fill the needed niches are sure to come out of this crisis looking dandy – even if that doesn’t happen for another half-century. Let’s look at the economic upsides of seawall construction now.

The Economic Upsides: “A Flood of New Construction”

The 21st century calls for a new way of doing things. From stormwater management to net zero buildings, construction firms across the country and globe are seeking approaches that benefit the environment, and finding that they can make good money off doing the job right. Coastal demands are no different, and ConstructionDive posits that the next several decades will generate “a flood of new construction” of the coastal management variety.

There are numerous plans already in the works. For instance, “officials at San Francisco International Airport announced they are moving ahead with a $587 million plan to build a major new seawall around the entire airport.”

On the opposite end of the country, “government officials have announced that construction will begin next year on a seawall system that will help protect the south shore of Staten Island, New York.” The project is projected to cost $615 million and “stretch approximately 5.3 miles from Oakwood Beach to Fort Wadsworth.”

Of course, none of this staggering economic development comes without risk. Smart companies need to consider what that risk is, and what they’ll do to mitigate it, before diving in.

The Risks of Seawall Construction Projects (and Other Large Infrastructure)

For local cities and construction companies, there are big leaps of faith when taking on significant infrastructure projects like seawall construction – and those leaps don’t always pay off, at least not without good planning. In the case of the Seattle Seawall Project (completed in 2017), budget overruns drove the project to balloon from an original $290 budget to over $409 million, with significant delays. Leaders said these problems were caused by “challenges no one expected.”

Obviously projects like these are complex; in the case of the Seattle Seawall it was an ambitious and very innovative project – with intended benefits to the current fish habitat – but nevertheless, not all projects can afford these large budget and schedule overruns. Expected or otherwise, these kinds of scenarios can run a firm right out of business.

So how can we steer clear of such risks in the coming years?

Key Issues When Building Projects for Rising Sea Levels

Some big issues when building projects for rising sea levels include:

  • High costs: Labor costs coupled with rising material costs make seawall construction projects very expensive projects to build and maintain.
  • Technical complications: Seawalls need to endure significant pressure from high wave loadings and designs need to be robust to support this.
  • Lack of expertise: Local skilled labor does not always have the skills to handle these projects, which leaves companies with the choice of bringing in labor from other areas or providing training themselves.
  • Environmental concerns: As these projects are designed to work against the rising forces of nature, it involves an intense amount of environmental surveying and studies before a project can begin.

How to Manage the Risks Associated with Seawall Construction

Our favorite risk management strategies include:

Choose the Right Team

First and foremost, you need to assemble the right team to be able to manage the complexity and reduce risk of seawall construction projects, especially to combat the lack of skills and knowledge in this specific building area. Tapping into prequalification and risk management software that allows you to prequalify subcontractors and other vendors can instrumentally improve this process.

Use Adaptive Designs

There is always an element of unknown when it comes to how a seawall or other protective structure will age and impact the larger environment; what might work today may not work tomorrow. Adaptive design is an engineering practice that helps address this uncertainty by allowing flexibility and response in its use down the road. It also solves not only a short term problem, but allows teams to plan better for the long term future.

Employ Advanced and Predictive Modeling

It’s impossible to know how sea level rises will impact waterfront communities, and as we said, seawall construction is just one solution. There are other, often more sustainable methods. Soft or “living” shorelines are one such method, growing in popularity all the time.

No matter which of the above strategies you adopt, it’s important to take into consideration the wide variety of factors that could impact the project and learn more about your options. That means using advanced modeling and simulations, building information modeling (BIM), and other cutting-edge approaches that will allow you to improve design and construction planning and test solutions before they are put into action.

The Future of Our Coasts, Our Duty for the Future

Arguably, losing our urban settlements to seawater encroachment is one of our most serious urbanization problems today. To meet the hundreds of billions of dollars work needed to keep our world’s cities protected from rising sea levels, construction teams need to employ the top strategies. By adopting innovative designs and technology, in addition to hiring and training top talent to execute correctly, firms can better prepare for and execute the important work ahead.

Grace Ellis

As a Content Marketing Manager at PlanGrid, Grace is the managing editor for the PlanGrid Construction Productivity Blog. With over eight years of experience in marketing, communications and PR for technology companies, she is specialized in high-quality content creation across both traditional and digital media platforms.

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