A New Method for Assessing Climate Risks to Buildings that are Part of a Large Building Stock

The Société québécoise des infrastructures (SQI) started, in April 2019, the Vulnérabilité des bâtiments aux Changements Climatiques project to assess and better adapt the province’s public buildings to the impacts of climate change.

The main mission of the SQI is to develop, maintain and manage the provincial government’s building stock for the benefit of ministries and public agencies. The organization recognizes that climate change is having an increasing impact on its assets. Heat waves, flooding, and winter freeze-thaw cycles, along with snow and ice storms have a significant impact on buildings, and their owners and occupants. These weather phenomena can cause property loss and damage, breakdowns, premature aging of certain components, and they can cause operations to slow down or even stop, or compromise the health and safety of occupants. Considering the risks of an increase in the frequency and intensity of these phenomena due to climate change, the Vulnérabilité des bâtiments aux Changements Climatiques (VACCIn) project was developed to provide a method for assessing the vulnerability of buildings owned by the SQI to climate change. Ultimately, this assessment method should contribute to the development of climate change adaptation strategies for public buildings, finely tuned to the individual buildings and their context. *This case study is primarily derived from the project report listed in the “Resources” section.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

The VACCIn project was funded by Ouranos and the Institut national de santé publique du Québec (INSPQ) through the Quebec government’s 2013-2020 Action Plan on Climate Change. The main goal of the VACCIn project is to develop a method for assessing the vulnerability of buildings owned by the SQI to climate change. These 350 buildings were built at different times (1810-2019). They have a variety of functions, many of which are related to the maintenance of public health and safety. In addition, these buildings are spread across the province, exposing them to a variety of weather conditions.

The VACCIn project also has the following objectives:

  • Develop a reproducible methodology for assessing the vulnerability of the building stock and its occupants
  • Prioritize the buildings to be assessed based on their mission
  • Apply this methodology to buildings considered as priorities in order to validate the method
  • Provide other owners with a toolbox to replicate this approach
  • Develop a dissemination strategy for the approach and tools produced

The VACCIn project is based on three key concepts of adaptation: risk, vulnerability and resilience to climate change. These concepts have been specifically integrated into the reality of infrastructure and building management. The work was carried out in collaboration with Ouranos and the INSPQ. The project relied on the climate models available on the Ouranos platforms and climatedata.ca, using the correct climate indices for the real estate sector. However, the project leaders had to take into account the variability of uncertainty between different indices, with freeze-thaw cycles, heat and heat waves having more appropriate models for the desired use. Furthermore, in the case of high winds, tornadoes or ice storms, climate indices are either non-existent or approximate. The evolution of these phenomena in the future appears in some reference documents, such as the knowledge synthesis produced by Ouranos in 2015. Some important phenomena for building management also require specific studies because of the variety of factors at their source; for example, riparian flooding.

For additional climate information, look at the Resources section of this example (below).

Identifying Actions

The first step of the project was to conduct a literature review and analyze nine existing methods for assessing risk, vulnerability and resilience to climate change. The main goal of this review was to highlight different approaches, with their advantages and disadvantages, in order to target the relevant features for the SQI.

The assessment methods include four guides, two diagnostic tools and three data archives from Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia. The nine methods analyzed were developed for use at different spatial scales, ranging from a region to a building. They are also intended for different groups: public agencies, designers and finally property owners and managers. Most of these methods are open access with the exception of the Public Infrastructure Engineering Vulnerability Committee (PIEVC) Protocol and the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

Each method was examined to highlight:

  1. The objective
  2. The conceptual framework
  3. The main steps in its approach
  4. The tools and data required
  5. The type of results produced

To avoid redundancy, the results have been presented according to the type of method: guides, diagnostic tools, and data archives. The terminology of some methods has also been adapted according to their conceptual framework. This is the case for methods that are part of a vulnerability assessment as defined in the fourth annual report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) AR4, in order to respond to the context of the climate risk assessment recommended in the fifth report.


After the literature review, the project team worked to develop a method inspired by a list of best practices that appeared most likely to meet the SQI’s needs. The first of these conditions is the size and diversity of the building stock. The method had to be sufficiently comprehensive to provide a realistic picture of the risks to each building but remain general enough to be able to assess several buildings within a reasonable time frame. The second condition is the need to produce results that are part of current operations. The method therefore focuses on producing a climate risk index that is complementary to the condition index that is currently used to prioritize asset maintenance projects. The third condition is transferability. The SQI has indeed committed to sharing its methodology with all real estate stakeholders who would like to undertake a similar approach. However, the SQI’s databases contain a considerable amount of information on each of its buildings, which is not the case for all organizations. Therefore, the method had to be based on data that could be easily documented.

The approach developed is based on the calculation of hazard, exposure, and vulnerability indices that lead to the calculation of risk indices, as suggested in the “Risk Supplement to the Vulnerability Sourcebook” (GIZ and EURAC, 2017). This approach was preferred for several reasons, including its rigour, adaptability, presentation of results based on the three components of risk, as well as the numerical format of the indices which easily fit into existing databases, with simply transferrable alphanumeric or graphical scales. Finally, the indices can be monitored over time, facilitating the evaluation of the effectiveness of adaptation actions. The method includes four steps prior to risk assessment. These are:

  1. Identifying potential climate hazards
  2. Determining climate indices to assess these hazards
  3. Creating a geospatial database
  4. Selecting criteria to prioritize buildings for assessment.

The geospatial database allows each building to be situated in its context and centralizes the required data. It also allows the integration of data layers produced by other organizations to assess the exposure of buildings to certain climatic hazards, such as flooding. Finally, the geomatics software used to manage the database also offers the possibility of making queries based on descriptive attributes.

The final step was to select the criteria to prioritize the buildings to be assessed. Four criteria were selected for this purpose:

  1. Strategic role of the building in the maintenance of public health or safety
  2. Heritage value
  3. Existence of complaints related to the comfort of the building during the previous year
  4. Condition index of D or E.

These criteria allowed us to target 12 buildings across Quebec.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

The development of the climate risk assessment method led to the creation of a new tool based on a digital spreadsheet. This solution was chosen because it is simple and accessible in most organizations and because it can be easily adapted according to the data available. The spreadsheet has ten tabs. The first tab, entitled “building sheet,” collects information about the building and its site that will be used at various points in the assessment. The cells also contain information to assist users in collecting data: for example, the SQI’s descriptive database, sections and elevations of the building, and satellite images. The following seven tabs allow users to calculate the risk indices associated with the major climate-related hazards identified earlier. The first section summarizes the risks to the building and its occupants. The next three sections calculate the hazard, exposure and vulnerability indices.

The determination of the hazard index consists of establishing a link between the value of a previously identified climatic index (e.g., the number of annual freeze-thaw events in the 2041-2070 time frame) and the value of the standardized hazard index. The calculation of the exposure index includes two to four multiple-choice questions, depending on the hazards being assessed. These questions seek to identify site characteristics that have the potential to amplify the adverse effects of the hazard on the building, such as topography or the presence of urban heat islands. The resulting exposure index represents the average values assigned to each question.

The calculation of the vulnerability index follows the same principle. This section includes between 13 and 30 multiple-choice questions, depending on the hazard. These focus on the architectural and technical features that predispose or not the building to damage. The questions are organized according to the UNIFORMAT II classification.

Although the method has only been tested on one of the priority buildings, it nevertheless appears promising. These results will be confirmed by the growing number of climate risk assessments. A simulation exercise conducted with the participation of three professionals responsible for the operation of the building allowed us to validate the usefulness and accessibility of this method for future users. Participants felt that the integration of the overall climate risk index as a complement to the condition index is relevant to the asset maintenance process. However, questions remain about how to record the results and ensure their accessibility at the corporate level.

Next Steps

The SQI and the teams associated with the project have actively participated in the dissemination of the tool, starting with its use by the City of Montréal, which will enable it to assess the vulnerability of its municipal buildings to the main climatic hazards.


Link to Full Case Study (in French only)

Additional Resources:

  • Climate data sources for using the tool:
  • Access to the tool: Contact Catherine Dubois at the SQI – cdubois@sqi.gouv.qc.ca