Designing housing for climate change means taking the long view. The long view of history, materials, sustainability, and humanity. This can be quite a challenge in a world that seeks immediate gratification and short term solutions.

There’s a whole lot of evidence that climate change is indeed real. NASA argues that current warming is ‘very likely human-induced and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented in the past 1,300 years.’

So we can’t keep designing housing with our heads in the sand. Climate change impacts the way we live and the kind of housing we build from now and into the future. To continue building without this very large issue framing all of our design decisions is irresponsible. That’s why the long view is so important.

What are the main design factors to consider?

Thermal comfort is one of the main issues that changing climate patterns have pushed to the forefront of housing design. Back in 2007, researcher Michael Holmes said thermal comfort, a subjective experience of satisfaction where you feel neither too hot or cold, is one of the key challenges for building designers in the 21st century, and ten years on this is still very much the case.

In Australia, a country that does not have excessively cold winters like much of the northern hemisphere, a massive 40% of all household energy consumption currently goes to heating and cooling. With better housing design that is sensitive to thermal comfort this figure could be reduced significantly.

Designing housing for climate change means taking the long view. The long view of history, materials, sustainability, and humanity. This can be quite a challenge in a world that seeks immediate gratification and short term solutions.

What might that involve? Design for passive cooling and heating is key to a sustainable approach in achieving thermal comfort. This means designing housing in such a way that we do not have to rely on artificial cooling and heating sources to maintain a comfortable temperature. Factors like ventilation and airflow, insulation, choice of building materials, decisions about the direction that buildings face, and if there is limited choice about this, then the placement of doors and windows becomes critical. The Australian Government calls this ‘climate responsive design’. Thermal comfort, of course, is relevant the world over, no matter what the range of temperatures may be. Climate change is altering weather everywhere.

According to NASA, the potential future effects of global climate change include longer periods of drought in some regions and an increase in the number, duration and intensity of tropical storms.

It turns out the human body has a narrow range of temperature tolerance before it starts to feel uncomfortable. Things like temperature, humidity, air movement, exposure to radiant heat sources, and cool surfaces impact both physical and psychological human comfort. This poses a major issue for housing design from here on when we see the impact climate change is having on weather.

One way of increasing thermal mass is by designing for green roofing. According to Ecospecifier Global,

‘Urban heat islands have become such a phenomenon worldwide that vegetated green roofs or conventional buildings such of offices now account for 20% of the new roofs in Germany, Tokyo has mandated them on all new commercial buildings over 1000m2 and massive projects are appearing throughout the US such as a 40,000m2 green roof on the Ford Motor Company’s Detroit manufacturing plant.

Green roofs provide significant energy savings via insulation, thermal mass, evaporation and evapotranspiration pathways as well as major water & visual quality outcomes.’

Flooding is another major issue that requires design consideration in housing. As temperatures rise, so do sea levels. NASA puts it like this:

‘Global sea level has risen by about 8 inches since reliable record keeping began in 1880. It is projected to rise another 1 to 4 feet by 2100. This is the result of added water from melting land ice and the expansion of seawater as it warms.’

Flooding can also be brought on by changes in precipitation levels with predictions that some areas of the globe will experience heavier rain events than previously.

Global sea level has risen by about 8 inches since reliable record keeping began in 1880. It is projected to rise another 1 to 4 feet by 2100.

With all this added water, cities are at a greater risk to flooding. Housing design needs to take this into account and plan for this change. To do this innovative thinking is required so that we create resilient structures while taking a long view of urban planning. In some cases, this means designing floating architecture.

Forward-thinking and innovative architect, Koen Olthuis argues this means designing flexibly (not being stuck in a ‘today’ mindset) and embracing – not fighting – the water challenge. He encourages housing design to incorporate the flooding phenomenon into our design of cities. His architectural practice, WaterStudio, is trialling City App, a floating development housing prototype based on a standard sea-freight container designed for people in poor areas of the world. These are sometimes referred to as ‘wet slums’, where rising sea levels threaten access to clean water, sanitation, and power.

City Apps, designed by Waterstudio, are floating developments based on a standard sea-freight container.

Designing housing for climate change means acknowledging we can’t keep living and working in glass. As professor of design David Coley, points out glass is likely to become a casualty in designing and building for future weather. As a material, glass is inefficient for cold and hot weather. David explains that triple glazing leaks more heat than a simple brick cavity wall with each metre square of glass, even when triple glazed, losing ten times as much heat as a wall. Which is quite mind boggling when you think about how much the general public has been convinced of the ecological benefits in double and triple glazing. And how aesthetically compelling expanses of glass can be when incorporated into housing.

As an inefficient material for both cold and hot, glass is likely to become a casualty in designing and building for future weather.

David argues that buildings will have to be simplified removing a host of services we’ve come to be expect, and those that remain will need to use ‘almost no energy – and possibly generate the energy they require on site’. There is much to learn from housing of the past, and cultures across the globe where housing has evolved to deal with extreme climate issues from a low-impact, low-energy consumption perspective. For example, Greece and much of the Mediterranean has houses with thick walls and smaller windows, and this design allows those who live there to deal with temperature variations without requiring energy consumption.

Mark Snow and Deo Prasad tell us that scientific studies predict ‘an increased risk and intensity of extreme events such as bushfires, tropical cyclones, floods, hailstorms and droughts. The context they write in is Australia, but an increase in events like this are predicted to have an impact across the world. For example, Vincent Cheng and Jimmy Tong have just published Building Sustainability in East Asia: Policy, Design and People, with a focus on these specific climate change related issues and highlighting the impact on Asia.

An example of thoughtful design practice in this category is about designing out risk, according to the NHBC Foundation in the UK. In terms of designing with the anticipation of fire, this means giving deep consideration to and prioritising fire resistant materials, and making sure designs do not include large void or open plan spaces.

In terms of storms, the NHBC suggests that designers consider increasing roof pitches, focus on protecting walls from rain, create stronger structural fixings, and increasing the size of rainwater goods such as gutters and pipes.

Thinking beyond the developed world

Climate change is having an impact the world over, but those in developing countries are already feeling and will continue to experience the worst of it due to sensitive geography and rising sea levels. Architect, Koen Olthius, puts it like this: ‘Miami and New York are the cities most threatened by sea level rise in terms of exposed real estate, but the populations most threatened by sea level rise would be in Mumbai, Dhaka, and Calcutta.’ As the Centre for Global Development points out, climate change will be catastrophic for the poor.

Climate change is having an impact the world over, but those in developing countries are already feeling and will continue to experience the worst of it due to sensitive geography and rising sea levels.

Therefore it is crucial that housing design prioritises the development of innovative solutions in the less wealthy parts of the world.

You may be interested to know that Jakarta in Indonesia is a site for innovation in housing design. The city of Jakarta is taking a fresh approach to dealing with a myriad of problems to do with rising sea levels, sinking soil, and salt water pollution of the drinking water supply. Instead of raising water systems in a defensive way they’re embracing the plan to build a massive wet polder (a kind of marshland) where a city of one million people will be built on floating structures. The idea comes from Dutch engineers and urban planners. This approach to planning and housing will make Jakarta super resilient because the design works with the effects of climate change rather than against it.

Housing design continues to be a major issue with economics underpinning much of the anxiety. When you overlay this with the challenges inherent in climate change you can begin to see how important it is to get things right. Taking a long view is a key part of the approach we need. Various designers have made it their core mission to get this right. Their leadership is inspiring so let’s work to support their efforts where we can.

Want to read more on this topic? Home, Sweet Zero Home is worth reading if you’re considering how to build a low impact, energy efficient home. And the online magazine, InHabitat has both an environment and architecture stream, and will keep you well informed.

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