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Engineering Buildings to Withstand Winter Weather

March 16, 2015 | 3 min read

During this time of year, many of us are trying to endure harshly cold temperatures and wintery mixes that make getting around more difficult than usual. But people aren’t the only ones that need to find a way to thrive in these climates; buildings of all shapes and sizes do as well.

Engineers must design buildings that are well-suited to existing microclimates and predict potential negative impacts and interactions with earthly forces. And of course, these considerations must be weighed against aesthetics and budgetary limitations.  Here are a few ways that engineers are designing modern buildings to withstand cold weather and all the pesky conditions that go with it.

Winter Building Dangers

If you live in a cold climate city, you’ve probably encountered warning signs that read, “Danger, Falling Ice.” Buildings tend to accumulate ice and show along their roof tops, ledges, and window sills that can harm people or property on the ground level. And the taller the buildings, the greater chance of damage from a long fall. Engineers who build in cold climates must conduct ice and snow assessments that predict everything from accumulation amounts to icicle formation, freeze/thaw damage, and obstructed views from skylights.

Unfortunately, some building design features that make structures more energy efficient actually have a negative impact upon winter weather durability. For example, solar shading devices, thick ledges, and extended windowsills help conserve energy and make buildings more resistance to heat loss. However, ice and snow assessments indicate that these features often create more ice and snow build-up and pose winter hazards.

Winter Weather Roofs

Slippery sloped metal surfaces enable dangerous winter building conditions, and the roof drainage path is also an important building feature in this regard. Not only can sliding ice and snow harm people down below, but it can also damage mechanical equipment, roof seams, and lighting protection. Roofs must be built to hold a heavy ice and snow-packed load during winter months. Engineers must find ways to prevent gutters and roof trains from freezing over and creating dam formations that block necessary drainage.

Building Entrances and Exits

The architectural layout of a building should also keep cold weather conditions in mind. Engineers design office and residential buildings to shelter users from the harshest winds and avoid snow infiltration at entrances and exits. Canopies, wind screens, double doors, and wing walls can all be utilized to protect these doorway areas. It’s always helpful to have an occupancy assessment on hand and to also have a general understanding of how the building will be used on a daily basis.

Cold Weather Material Choices

Based upon multiple ice and snow assessments in cold weather conditions around the world, engineers have found that far too often, sloped metal and glazed walls allow for slippery and dangerous conditions. Fortunately, there are a few common practices that can help minimize these risks.

Cool roof construction can help snow melt by increasing insulation values and light-colored roofing materials. Planting bushes and hardy vegetation on top of roofs can reduce the risk of ice and snow sliding. However, plants can also accumulate greater quantities of ice and snow, leading to snow drifts and build-ups. There are many challenges to cold weather building construction, and advanced engineering technology and research is needed to ensure the safety and efficiency of the places we live and work.

Photo credit: LevoisJ and Bradhoc via Flickr

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