Flood Panel LLC
With flood events on the rise in America, the federal government has overhauled once-stagnant regulations and insurance requirements, leaving general contractors, engineers and architects scrambling to understand this new age of flood protection.
“They call us up panic-stricken saying they tried to get a certificate of occupancy, but were just told by an inspector that their building was in a flood zone,” says Tom Osborne, founder of Flood Panel LLC, a Florida-based company that designs flood protection products for commercial construction projects nation-wide.
In the past, builders didn’t worry about flood zones because they were only updated every 15 to 20 years by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the government agency responsible for responding to disasters and disaster preparation.
But in the last decade, specifically after insurance claims for Hurricane Katrina and Sandy nearly bankrupted the national flood insurance program, the federal government decided it needed a more proactive approach.
In 2012, Congress wrote the Biggert-Waters Act to reduce the flood insurance deficit by eliminating flood insurance subsidies for commercial and municipal buildings, updated flood zones, “and basically said that if you don’t bring your building up to the required code standards for flood mitigation, your premiums may increase by tenfold or you may not qualify for flood insurance at all,” Osborne says.
Founded in 2006, Flood Panel, whose flood protection products include flood logs, a standard flood panel, as well as custom panels, hinged flood gates and flood doors, was one of the few companies poised for this paradigm shift.
“We wanted to be at the forefront for these people so we can hold their hand when they get smacked with this new regulation,” Osborne says.
After the Biggert-Waters Act went into effect in 2014, Osborne was still receiving calls from architects and builders begging for more information on flood protection.
So Osborne, now certified by the American Institute of Architects, began holding seminars across the country to educate architects, engineers, developers and even insurance companies on the complex regulations.
He also wanted these industries to understand that true flood protection is about more than protecting a building’s entrance.
“Salt water weighs 64 pounds per cubic foot, and if you multiply that by a 10-foot opening, that’s 640 pounds against whatever you’re trying to use to keep the water out,” Osborne says. “Very quickly you realize that most buildings are not engineered to withstand that weight.”
In many cases, buildings not designed to handle that pressure will collapse when exposed to just four feet of water.
Furthermore, there are other ways for water to get in besides the front door.
If a building’s floor drain, for instance, doesn’t have a reverse flow valve, water will come up through the drain and flood the building from the inside out. In Florida, where buildings are generally built on slabs without basements, Osborne says engineers also have to protect against rising groundwater, which produces hydraulic uplift on the slab.
To understand the needs of other markets, Flood Panel began building a network of partners by inviting architects, engineers, contractors, building owners, and more recently, insurance providers from different markets to collaborate with the company.
“So when somebody from California calls us, rather than getting into an architectural discussion I can connect them with an architect I trust out west,” Osborne says.
Inventor and educator
Osborne, a design engineer by trade, developed the majority of the company’s products, many of which are patented or patent-pending.
In 2014, Flood Panel was a finalist in RISE: NYC, a competition that funds projects to help small businesses affected by Hurricane Sandy prepare for extreme weather.
“Our custom work is where we really shine,” he says.
In 2014, Flood Panel was a finalist in RISE: NYC, a competition that funds projects to help small businesses affected by Hurricane Sandy prepare for extreme weather. The company’s invention, known as the Polylite Flood Panel System™, uses a custom extruded aluminum alloy filled with polyurethane elastomer, a material used to strengthen the hulls of ships. This results in a thinner, more lightweight, impact-resistant panel that could be easily deployed to protect a business during a flood.
When manufacturing a new product like the Polylite Flood Panel System™, Flood Panel tests each invention using Solidworks, a 3D modeling software. The technology, first used by the Russian Space Agency, allows Flood Panel to input a model of a new invention and then test it against any kind of force or impact.
“I can simulate anything—wind, water, moving water, its impact, in any profile and from any direction. I can even hit it with a telephone pole at a specific spot and watch exactly what happens,” Osborne says.
Through the program, Osborne and his team can observe where the stresses are and fix any potential problems before they begin building the physical product.
Osborne calls this process “testing to failure” and it’s how Flood Panel remains confident in all of its flood doors, panels and gates.
It is also why the company is called upon for more unusual projects.
In the beginning of 2016, Flood Panel was hired by the federal government to design a series of massive flood gates, some over six feet tall, to simulate fast water rescues in order to train first responders how to save people stuck in a rapid river or the middle of a flood.
“It’s a project that has never been done in the United States, so everything—the doors, hinges and gaskets—are going to be completely custom made,” Osborne says.
On the other side of the spectrum, Flood Panel has designed flood products for historical projects, like the 21 West Street Building in Manhattan, New York.
Deemed a historical landmark by the city, Flood Panel had to flood-proof the building without changing the façade. In the end, Osborne says his team designed a custom anchorage system for the flood plates that could be concealed behind the columns of the building.
Even after all the seminars and high-profile projects, Osborne knows he will always have to take on the role of educator.
“There are a lot of places in flood zones that weren’t in flood zones two years ago, and a lot of rhetoric out there about what the future is for flooding,” he says. “But the real issue that no one disagrees with is as long as more space is being built on and occupied, the water has to go somewhere.”
Not in basements or first floors, if Flood Panel has anything to do with it.
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