A massive report on climate change, the Fourth National Climate Assessment, published in November, emphasizes the threats posed by climate change and the impacts U.S. residents will see if no action is taken. The report, a collaborative effort of 13 federal agencies and more than 300 climate scientists, says that:
- The impacts of climate change already being seen in communities across the country
- Climate change is a public health crisis
- The American infrastructure and property will face damages
- The quality and quantity of water available for use by people across the country are being affected by climate change
- Climate change is an economic crisis as it is unsustainably expensive
This is just scratching the surface as the assessment’s findings are numerous and the effects of global warming continue to keep growing in number. The effects of climate change are evident in every area of the country; devastating fires, flash floods, drought conditions, temperature extremes and rising sea levels. These type of weather events are predicted to increase in both frequency and severity.
The building, design and construction industry needs to adapt now to meet the challenges posed by our changing climate. The Fourth National Climate Assessment report states:
Incorporating climate projections into infrastructure design, investment and appraisal criteria, and model building codes is uncommon. Standardized methodologies do not exist, and the incorporation of climate projections is not required in the education or licensing of U.S. design, investment or appraisal professionals. Building codes and rating systems tend to be focused on current, short-term, extreme weather. Investment and design standards, professional education and licensing, building codes, and zoning that use forward-looking design can protect urban assets and limit investor risk exposure.
The 100 Resilient Cities initiative by The Rockefeller Foundation is dedicated to helping cities around the world become more resilient to physical, social and economic challenges. 100RC believes that resiliency not only includes effects like earthquakes, fires and floods, but also the stresses that weaken the fabric of a city. Examples of these stresses include high unemployment, an overtaxed or inefficient public transportation system, endemic violence or chronic shortages of food or water.
Although the building industry cannot address the economic stresses of a city, it plays a large role in contributing to environmental sustainability and addressing community problems. Building with resiliency will allow cities to quickly bounce back from trauma caused by weather crises. Members of the building community need to learn from their buildings and deploy designs that can last through a variety of crises.
Resilient buildings, as well as resilient cities, are evolving and must continue to do so to combat effects of global warming. A city with resilient buildings will be able to withstand disruptions and be prepared for natural disasters – which unfortunately, according to climate change research, is only expected to grow and become more damaging.
The industry, as well as the population in general, needs to break the build/destroy/rebuild disaster cycle. A staggering number of buildings were destroyed by natural disasters in 2018, including fires in California, Hurricane Michael, and Hurricane Florence, which ripped through the Carolinas in September. Rather than rebuild and wait for the next natural disaster, solutions should include:
- Design with climate resilience in mind
- Incorporate building materials that provide better protection of assets
- Adopting stronger building codes
- Retrofitting existing buildings
- Not rebuilding in areas that are high-risk flood zones
The industry also needs to re-evaluate the life cycle of the buildings it creates. The changing climate should be a factor when conducting a life cycle assessment (LCA) of a building.
The industry also needs to reconsider its choices when it comes to building materials. It’s time to consider moving away from building wood-frame homes in coastal communities; the same holds true for light-commercial buildings. Concrete is often seen as the go-to alternative, but as strong as it is, the production of Portland cement produces a significant amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHG). Approximately a ton of GHG is created for every ton of cement produced. Cement production is responsible for about 5 percent of all global CO2 emissions.
The solution is a combination of advanced building techniques and materials, a commitment to designing buildings with the changing climate in mind, and re-thinking issues like building codes and zoning ordinances.
According to a report by the University of Oxford’s Adaptation and Resilience in the Context of Change network:
Despite the availability of climate change projections for some years, the construction industry is still very much at the early stages of developing practical responses to the adaptation agenda.
The American Institute of Architects says:
Resilient and adaptable buildings and communities must be a central tenet of design in order for buildings to remain safe and operational into the future, especially as we are faced with adverse conditions triggered by climate-related hazards and other shocks and stresses. To achieve this, we must design to manage greater extreme temperatures, increased intensity and frequency of climate-related events, and sea level rise.
Despite the U.S. dropping out of the Paris Agreement, there is a groundswell of support to reduce carbon and other GHG emissions. But it’s becoming clear that GHG reduction alone won’t be enough to mitigate the impacts of climate change, and the building, design and construction industry needs also focus on efforts to increase resiliency in the wake of inevitable impacts from our warming planet.
Any remaining debate on the topic of climate change is now over, as its effects are currently seen today, and research about future effects is continually published. The good news is that people are recognizing the need for resilience in sustainable building and that there are growing efforts, like the 100 Resilient Cities, to address this need. By working together and evolving our building practices, we can increase resiliency in the built environment, help cities across the nation and mitigate effects of climate change.