Architects need to address long-term climate change challenge

  • February 13, 2014
Architects need to address long-term climate change challenge

Flooding in the UK has caused huge problems this winter, damaging homes and possessions. In developing countries, from the Philippines to Haiti, extreme weather events are growing. Such events come on top of unpredictable changes in the world economy, the rapid and constant pace of technology and political and social upheaval, with developing countries being on the frontline of such global shifts.

Such changing times have raised huge questions for architects. How do you create long-lasting buildings in a developing country? What is the future for our urban environments, our cities, our buildings amid all these changes? The dual challenge architects face today is how to create buildings with a low carbon footprint while at the same time ensuring that they are future-proofed to reduce their vulnerability to the effects of climate change and other unforeseen potential surprises.

Developing countries are experiencing rapid economic growth with most undergoing a construction boom. Alongside a demand for meeting the needs of an increasing human population amid ever dwindling resources, architects and design teams in these emerging economies are being asked to respond to pressure:

– to build low-carbon buildings which conserve energy and mitigate climate change;

– to design buildings that can adjust not only to ever-changing climate conditions, but to the effects of such conditions, including escalating flooding risks, overheating risks, strains on water resources and less stable ground conditions among other environmental hazards;

– to meet the aspirations of a fast-developing society, without compromising on energy consumption and attempts to cut emissions during the urbanisation process.

Future-proofing our buildings

The question of how we can guarantee a building can meet all these demands over decades is not just about designing for our current climate conditions. We need to design buildings which will meet the demands of tomorrow, given that a building could be in use for 50 to 100 years or more. Making rational design decisions for such an extended timescale in an uncertain future is daunting.

It is a future where factors that drive change such as the economy, politics, society, technology and the environment are characterised by randomness. Most of today’s buildings are not built with such change in mind. Architects need to take into account the various uncertainties that might occur in a building’s lifetime and manage the risks involved. These risks may not be clear during the design and construction of the building. They need to adopt a risk approach that aids in understanding, assessing and managing unforeseen and potential surprises.

A risk management approach involves mapping out and quantifying the physical, technological, environmental and socio-economic consequences of dealing with a whole range of uncertainties and how they might affect building performance both now and in the future.

Simulating change

My current research investigates how computer-aided building simulation can be used to model these complex and dynamic interactions over different timescales to produce accurate and reliable results. This could give us a chance to test different design interventions whose success in achieving building performance robustness would remain unaffected both in the short and long term. Moreover, it would be possible to assess and ultimately rank these strategies’ effectiveness and urgency along a time axis.

Ultimately, this would help architects to identify and assess whole life building performance in specific locations. The results of such risk management work will undoubtedly help policymakers to target resources and help them identify areas of possible technological advancements. They would also help with the setting of building regulations, policy strategies and updated building codes which improve buildings’ effectiveness and ensure that they are future proofed against runaway climate change.

*Linda Gichuyia [2011] is doing a PhD in Architecture at the University of Cambridge. Picture credit jiggoja and

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