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Climate Change, Natural Disasters and Buildings

Buildings are responding and adapting to the different risks they and their occupants are exposed to

Teni Ladipo Simon Pierce

Climate change and the associated threat to the built environment due to more frequent and severe natural disasters are much more in the minds of individuals in the construction industry as well as those who occupy buildings. With this shift in focus, we are beginning to see an increase in the way our buildings respond and adapt to the different risks buildings and occupants are exposed to.

Disaster-resilient design principals are being implemented more often, which include:

  • Increased measures to improve the robustness of our buildings to withstand severe weather events.
  • Reduced recovery time required for rebuilding and repairs after detrimental weather impacts.
  • Adaptive technologies suitable for withstanding natural hazards experienced now and anticipated in the future.
  • Increased energy efficiency through improved façade performance.
  • Minimizing environmental impact to ensure we are reducing carbon emissions and not depleting key resources we will need in the future to rebuild and sustain our environment.

The increasing severity of environmental events driven by climate change along with a greater awareness within the public sphere is leading to a revolution within the built environment sector. We have seen the first brave steps taken by designers through collective pledges to take action in how we design and specify our buildings (Architects Declare, Engineers Declare, etc.). As we translate this declaration into specific action—for example, in how we account and report on embodied and operational carbon within our buildings—we find that the market is pushing developers to consider climate and environmental drivers as a key part of the decision making process. This, coupled with a greater awareness around the broader issues of sustainability such as human health, access to natural daylight and energy efficiency, is leading to tough challenges with designs needing to respond to competing, and often, conflicting criteria.

An example of this is minimizing façade glazing to reduce energy bills while maximizing the glazing to encourage deep penetration of natural light into the building. These challenges need new innovative solutions, all while working within the technological limits of the current age.

To date, responses from industry to catastrophic weather events have varied around the world. Design criteria for hurricanes is well established in the U.S. due to the existing frequency of those events. In Australia, design principles and best practice for wild fires are commonly used. In the United Kingdom, there has been much work carried out on flooding protection and drainage strategies designed to withstand the anticipated increase in rainfall through the next century.

The great challenge over the next few years will be accurately predicting which zones the extreme climatic events will affect and which design criteria and principles should be anticipated. This will require working with climate experts and translating the anticipated events into practical, codified design processes. None of this will be easy, and it inevitably won’t be an exact science. But, by harnessing the power of advanced computer modeling to proactively anticipate this, we will be able to develop beyond the traditional reactive approach that industry has had to take to date.

This will depend on the location where we build and the hazards that are more prevalent there. Here in the United Kingdom and across Europe, we are experiencing a trend in which summers are becoming hotter with more intense heat waves. Heat waves can also lead to droughts and wildfires as consequences where the surrounding environment is vulnerable to these effects. Our existing older building stock may not be designed to protect occupants from such prolonged excessive heat exposure in the way that newer or energy-retrofitted buildings can. For example, more recent building regulations requiring better thermal performance of façades have a greater ability to reduce heat gains to the interior and maintain lower, safer internal temperatures for a longer period and keep spaces habitable.

As metal can be such a large component used in the construction of buildings, the way it is used and produced can have an impact in improving climate resistant design through reducing the carbon footprint of building production. For example, our industry can make a better effort to specify low-carbon metals and suppliers for projects by placing more scrutiny on Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs). This includes requiring manufacturers can guarantee that their metal is produced with higher percentages of recycled content, and the manufacturing process utilizes renewable energy where possible.

Metals generally have great ductility, which is important for absorbing large structural impacts such as seismic events or hurricane impacts. They also generally have a high recycled content and can be recycled after their use. Finally, steel structures and cladding tends to be lighter than other construction materials, reducing the scale of foundations required to support the building, making a dramatic impact on the embodied carbon of the substructure.

Architects/Engineers Declare is collectively turning this into concrete action. We are developing tools which can be used throughout the design process to help positively influence clients to make informed decisions. This includes energy performance, embodied carbon, daylighting for health and more.

Fundamentally, climate resilience fits within sustainability. If a building is unable to conclude its useful life and protect its occupants adequately through a catastrophic weather event, we would argue that this is not responding to the sustainable principle.

Teni Ladipo, Ph.D., is façade engineer and Simon Pierce is associate director at Eckersley O’Callaghan Ltd., London. To learn more, email