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Buildings and Climate Change Adaptation


Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century, significantly impacting the building sector. According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) report, the number of extreme weather-related disasters has increased fivefold between 1970 and 2019, causing over 2 million deaths and $3.64 trillion in economic losses. Adapting buildings to ensure their resilience against future climate challenges is essential. This blog post explores the impacts of climate change on buildings, possible adaptation strategies, and the role of various stakeholders in this transition. By emphasizing the importance of adaptation, we aim to encourage concerted action towards building a resilient future.


Understanding Climate Change and Its Risks

Climate change is a reality that increasingly affects our daily lives and infrastructures. Among the most impacted sectors, the building sector needs to become more resilient and needs to adapt to face the growing climate risks.


Climate Change

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) defines climate change as “a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods”.


Adaptation

According to the UNFCCC, “adaptation refers to adjustments in ecological, social or economic systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli and their effects. It refers to changes in processes, practices and structures to moderate potential damages or to benefit from opportunities associated with climate change. In simple terms, countries and communities need to develop adaptation solutions and implement actions to respond to current and future climate change impacts.” In the building sector this includes measures such as modifying infrastructures, improving systems, and adopting more resilient practices.


Resilience

The IPCC Sixth Assessment Report defines climate resilience as “the capacity of social, economic and ecosystems to cope with a hazardous event or trend or disturbance, responding or reorganising in ways that maintain their essential function, identity and structure as well as biodiversity in case of ecosystems while also maintaining the capacity for adaptation, learning and transformation.”


Climate Risks

Climate risks are "the possibility of being negatively impacted by climate change. This type of risk is assessed by investigating the interaction between the potential of climate change, negative impacts related to the climate vulnerability of a system, and its exposure to a physical climate hazard. Climate risks can be reduced by enhancing adaptive capacity and strengthening ecological, societal, and economic resilience."


Climate risks related to climate change can be classified into two main categories:

  • Physical Risks: These are directly linked to physical hazards that can affect assets. They can be chronic (slow evolution, such as changes in average temperature, changes in precipitation patterns, and sea level rise) or acute (events caused by climate change, such as intensified heatwaves, storms, floods, marine submersion, landslides, droughts, and fires). Climate change also affects biodiversity, such as the loss of marine biodiversity due to ocean acidification and rising water temperatures, and the loss of species due to changes in natural habitats. These impacts affect ecosystem functions, posing a threat to the most vulnerable populations.

  • Transition Risks: These are associated with potential changes in the regulatory environment and public policy landscape affected by technology and market forces. These changes are made in response to climate change to mitigate or adapt the impacted sectors. They are implemented to reduce physical risks but can have financial and reputational impacts.


Impacts of Climate Change on Buildings

Climate change has significant and varied impacts on the building sector, affecting both the structures and the health and comfort of occupants.


Direct Effects on Buildings

Buildings experience various direct impacts due to climate change, including structural damage and increased maintenance costs. Extreme weather events such as floods, storms, and heatwaves are examples of climatic phenomena that cause substantial structural damage. For instance, floods can weaken foundations, damage walls and roofs, and render buildings uninhabitable. A concrete example is the July 2021 floods in Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, which caused an estimated $43 billion in damages and resulted in around 200 deaths.

Severe storms can strip roofs, break windows, and cause significant damage to exterior structures. Extreme temperatures can lead to cracks and deformations in building materials. The repeated expansion and contraction of materials due to heat and cold can weaken the structure of buildings, thereby increasing maintenance and repair costs. Consequently, these costs rise due to more frequent damage caused by extreme climatic events. Additionally, energy costs increase to maintain comfortable living conditions in buildings subjected to increasingly extreme temperatures.


Consequences for the Health and Safety of Occupants

Climate change also directly impacts the health, comfort, and safety of building occupants. Heatwaves increase discomfort and the risk of heat-related illnesses, particularly for vulnerable individuals such as the elderly and children. Poorly insulated buildings or those without adequate air conditioning can become uninhabitable during extreme heat periods, increasing health risks for occupants. A striking example is the 2021 heatwave in the Pacific Northwest, which led to record temperatures exceeding 46°C and caused hundreds of deaths.

Floods and storms can not only damage building structures but also cause human casualties. Therefore, risk management and emergency planning become essential to protect the health and safety of building occupants against these increasingly frequent extreme weather events. Extreme weather events have significantly increased in frequency over the past 20 years. From 2000 to 2019, there were 7,348 major natural disasters globally, compared to 4,212 in the previous 20 years, marking an 83% increase. This surge in frequency is largely attributed to climate change, which has led to more frequent and severe floods, storms, droughts, wildfires, and heatwaves.


Strategies for Building Adaptation

The building sector must adopt proactive strategies to address the challenges posed by climate change. Adaptation involves a combination of resilient design, innovative technologies, and effective public policies.


Resilient Design

Adaptation of buildings begins at the design stage. Using durable materials resistant to extreme climatic conditions and incorporating bioclimatic design principles can reduce building vulnerability. Bioclimatic design optimizes the use of natural energy for heating, cooling, and lighting buildings. By incorporating elements such as high-performance windows, good thermal insulation, and natural ventilation systems, buildings can maintain comfortable indoor temperatures while minimizing energy consumption​​​​. Discover more about Bioclimatic architecture and passive design here.


Innovative Technologies

Integrating modern technologies is crucial for enhancing the resilience and adaptability of buildings to climate impacts. Water management systems, such as rainwater harvesting and efficient drainage systems, help prevent flooding. Additionally, the use of renewable energy sources like solar panels and wind turbines reduces the carbon footprint of buildings while increasing their energy resilience. Green roofs and vegetated walls are additional solutions that regulate indoor temperature, manage rainwater, and improve urban air quality​​​​​​.

Smart buildings play a vital role in adapting to changing climatic conditions. Equipped with sensors and automated management systems, these buildings can adjust heating, ventilation, and air conditioning based on real-time climatic conditions, optimizing energy consumption and occupant comfort. Building Management Systems (BMS) monitor and control energy and security systems, improving operational efficiency and reducing costs​​​​. Learn more about smart buildings in our dedicated blog post here.


Regulations and Public Policies

Implementing resilient building standards and building codes that account for climate risks is essential. Governments can provide financial incentives to encourage the adoption of sustainable and resilient technologies. For instance, subsidies for installing water management systems and renewable energy sources can promote the uptake of these technologies. Stricter standards for improving the energy efficiency and climate resilience of buildings are necessary to ensure a transition towards more sustainable buildings​​​​.


Environmental Certifications

Environmental certifications encourage and recognize sustainable building practices. Certifications such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) establish standards for the design, construction, and operation of sustainable buildings. These certifications evaluate various aspects, including energy efficiency, water management, indoor air quality, and the use of sustainable materials.

BREEAM:

  • Climate Change Adaptation Credit (WST05): Recognizes and encourages measures taken to limit the impact of extreme climatic conditions due to climate change on the building's lifespan.

  • Surface Water Runoff Credit (POL03): Aims to avoid, reduce, and delay the discharge of rainwater into public sewers and watercourses to minimize the risks and impacts associated with flooding, watercourse pollution, and other environmental damage​​.

LEED:

  • Resilient Design Credit Category: Encourages project teams to integrate resilience strategies against climate change in building design. For more information, consult the US Green Building Council (USGBC) website​​.

These certifications provide internationally recognized frameworks that help owners, developers, and architects design and manage more sustainable and resilient buildings.


Collaboration and Awareness

Collaboration between governments, businesses, and communities is crucial for developing integrated solutions. Training and raising awareness among building professionals about best adaptation practices also play a key role in improving infrastructure resilience. Awareness programs and local initiatives, such as community urban greening projects, can reduce urban heat islands and improve water management.


Conclusion

Adapting buildings to climate change is crucial to protecting our infrastructure and ensuring the safety and well-being of their occupants. By integrating resilient design strategies, adopting modern technologies, and implementing effective public policies, we can minimize climate impacts and build a more sustainable future.


Ready to make your construction projects more resilient to climate change? Contact us!






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