How Is Climate Change Shaping Architecture?

How are architects accommodating our fluctuating weather conditions?

Solar panels combatting climate change

When we think of extreme weather events (and let’s be honest, most people don’t, often), the mental images conjured up are often of a tsunami or hurricane on the other side of the world – which although devastating, seems very far away and very removed from our daily lives. Climate change is more impactful than perhaps we realise, and pretty close to home: and architects are just one profession having to adapt and transform with the changing landscape of demands. But what impact does this have in real terms, and what are some examples of this evolving field? Let’s investigate…

Why do Architects need to worry about Climate Change?

Providing an architect is designing a structure intended for permanent erection, they will need to ensure that it is fit for purpose and will be sustainable within the environment in which it’s being built. For example, buildings in the Middle East are designed and constructed in different ways to those in the Arctic Circle in order to work best in their varying climates.
As sea levels increase and greenhouse gases continue to push the planet to crisis, extreme weather conditions will and are becoming more commonplace worldwide due to global warming. This means that more buildings are at risk of needing additionally secured structures and may need to adapt to several different types of weather year-round.
For example, WMO secretary general Professor Petteri Taalas outlined several extreme weather events recently at a press conference. For the first time since records began, it rained rather than snowed fat the peak of the Greenland ice sheet; Canadian glaciers have begun melting as a result of a heatwave; the temperature in some parts of California reached 54.4°; and months’ worth of rain fell in just hours in China. While the public may not have heard of these events, they likely will be aware of flash flooding across Europe and wildfires across Australia – and these too all will have had ongoing impact on the architectural planning in these places. Buildings must be designed intentionally with the landscapes, communities and regions in order to respond to natural and manmade disturbances and disasters.

Can Architects plan for and design around both heating and flooding?

The risk of heating and flooding in the same place is actually more common than people think. Cities are ‘urban heat islands’ that have warmer temperatures than more rural areas; sometimes up to 5c. Their dense design, networks and structures trap heat and the building materials used absorb it. With less greenery for cover, this recipe is for overheating – and fast. But many cities are also constructed around waterways and so flood risks are also at an all-time high.
In India’s large cities, there are now periods from 3-30 days of deluge-level flooding and extreme heatwaves happening at the same time. Combined with storm surges and cyclones, the risks to buildings are high. Architects in Delhi are designing homes with thick floors and walls with voluminous spaces for thermal stacking and vertical slits to aid ventilation. Passive cooling technologies are also growing in popularities and the use of double-wall construction, solar panels and cool roofs are all becoming mainstream. To combat flooding risk, concealed gutters and storm-water pipes to direct rainwater into collection basins are installed alongside thorough waterproofing. Some larger architecture in Mumbai has even been designed canti-levered with a depression underneath specifically crated to catch excess rainwater and re-direct it to the water table. Local Planning Authorities are beginning to design closed-loop systems to manage household water expulsion efficiently throughout new build properties.

How can Architects design buildings for areas of high flood risk?

Flooding is a particular risk in many areas of the world, and it can seem like every year the news pushes out images of devastating water damage right here in the UK. Architects in Japan too have to plan for flooding and its aftermath, as average precipitation has increased and sea surface temperatures rise; leading to more powerful typhoons. As a result, Japanese architecture firms now commonly design homes with living rooms, kitchens and a bathroom or WC on the first floor rather than the ground – so that they can still be safely lived in and used even if the ground floor of the property is damaged.
Generally speaking, there are four ways to deal with flood damage in property: raise the ground, raise the floor, enclose the building or waterproof the building. However, with careful planning and prioritising, it is also possible to construct buildings that can be restored quickly even if the worst does happen – and this is being frequently implemented across Japanese urban design.

Wildfires seem commonplace in some areas now. How can these be designed for?

Indeed it seems at the moment that not a hot period goes by without pictures of calamitous wildfires burning through rural regions of the world. In Australia, properties are even now designed and constructed to be ‘bushfire-resilient’: with robust off-grid power systems, water tanks and fire-retardant materials. These help families stay safe and allow the emergency services to focus on putting the fires out as swiftly as possible to lessen environmental damage; rather than having to spend time and effort evacuating thousands of people.

This approach to design has been such a success that legal construction standards have even now been laid out for any building being erected in a bushfire-prone area – including the mandated use on non-combustible materials, uncomplicated exterior forms and shade structures and shutters installed to protect the home from radiant heat. This resilient design has already saved lives and livelihoods.
Climate Change is a very real threat to society and unfortunately, it will cause us all some problems in the future. However, with a little creativity and some forward-thinking, architects can make our lives easier with urban planning and residential developments – so we can love where we live for many years to come.

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