Building climate resilience into the built environment
Posted on: 1 September, 2023
by UCEM Academic Hazel Nash
With extreme weather events on the rise, what can the built environment do to ensure buildings are climate resilient?
There’s no question that climate change is impacting the frequency of extreme weather events. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the average global temperature is forecast to rise between 2.6-4.8 degrees Celsius by the end of the 21st century. Over the same period, sea level is expected rise 0.45-0.82 metres (The IPCC, 2014). The consequences of these climate changes include:
- Increased drought
- Heatwaves and wildfires
- Melting of icecaps
- Reduction in sea ice and permafrost
- Increased rainfall and flood events
Learn more: Climate chaos, societal change and the shifting role of the built environment
There are already plenty of recent examples of these kind of extreme weather events that are forecasted to become more frequent. Take the European wildfires across Greece, Corfu, Turkey, and Portugal, and the most destructive wildfires on record in the Eastern provinces of Canada. There have also been heatwaves in Arizona, Cairo, and Beijing, as well as intense tropical storms experienced in the Philippines, Taiwan, and Japan.
The impact of extreme weather on the built environment
The built environment in particular faces significant threats from the impacts of climate change. Weather events may disrupt transport, infrastructure, and critical services, which can impact detrimentally on human health and well-being. Buildings can be damaged or even destroyed, displacing people, and leaving them homeless.
The United Nations (UN) eleventh Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) aims to achieve sustainable cities and communities. At the heart of this ambition is designing, constructing, and retrospectively improving the resilience and adaptability of buildings and places to respond to the effects of climate change.
Critically, the nature and intensity of climate change impacts will vary across the globe, influenced by geographical location. It is therefore imperative that buildings both in situ and in design are capable of responding to these threats. Indeed, as observed by Chalmers (2014), without investment in improved resilience, the vulnerability of the built environment and the wider socio-economic impacts is “destined to increase”.
A critical objective in adapting to climate change must be to construct buildings that can withstand extreme weather events as well as making a positive impact on the environment throughout their lifetime. Of course, this relies on sound baseline and forecast data to understand the types of events likely in a region, as well as design innovations, material, and smart technologies to erase or mitigate identifiable risks.
This also relies upon drivers to incentivise investment and changes in building design and programme management. Whilst regulation may be one mechanism, other, perhaps more influential drivers including occupier demands are resulting in changes in decision-making behaviours.
How to improve climate resilience in buildings
There are many types of approaches that may be adopted to create or improve a building’s climate resilience. Pragmatic cost-effective solutions include the placing of electrical equipment on upper floors in flood risk areas and the inclusion of strategic openings in the building to increase natural ventilation and air flow.
There are also more expensive solutions, for example orientating a proposed building to harness the availability of natural light – effectively operating the building passively through regulating the internal temperature using the sun’s radiant energy. Other actions include the use of smart displays to inform occupiers of the functioning of the building including, amongst other things, room usage, energy use, internal temperature, and air quality.
Learn more: Small businesses have a crucial role in the battle against climate change
Given that buildings (residential and commercial) account for 30% of the global energy consumption, coupled with the energy crisis across much of Europe, the importance of delivery renewable energy infrastructure at a variety of scales should be considered critical. Reducing dependency on the grid by operating stand-alone energy capacity will enable buildings not only to reduce their carbon footprint through their operational lifetime, but also improve resilience to natural events such as extreme temperatures, which typically cause a surge in energy demand.
Climate resilient buildings around the world
Already around the world there are innovative and varied examples of buildings designed or retrospectively adapted to respond to climate change and increased risk of extreme weather events.
Schoonschip, Amsterdam is a housing cooperative involving approximately 100 people on Johan van Hasselt canal. It has been designed as a sustainable floating neighbourhood whereby all accommodation units have been designed separately and in partnership with the occupier to be made with sustainable materials and integrated within the community of housing, sharing electricity on one grid which is powered by solar panels and green roofs.
In Taipei City, the Guanga Charity Park involves 27 floors of public housing with office space and retail on ground floors, outdoor children’s play areas and sky gardens at mid and top levels respectively. The complex takes account of the intense land pressures in the area and has implemented within the design passive heating, on-site energy recovery and reclaimed water systems.
In New Jersey, existing buildings sited in flood prone areas are raised above Base Flood Elevation, referred to as building elevation. The method for undertaking this building elevation depends upon the construction of the building i.e., timber frame, masonry or brick.
Building a future of climate resilience
The challenges to the built environment posed by climate change need to be addressed at site, local and national level and at the very earliest stages in the designing of buildings and places. These challenges do not sit in isolation from other external economic, social, environmental, cultural and political conditions which vary geographically and over time.
However, examples of innovative building design, responding to forecasted extreme weather events, are growing from around the world. Opportunities to share approaches, technologies and processes in creating responsive, resilient buildings and places will be important in achieving the global ambition of sustainable development.
Sustainability is a global emergency, and it’s taking centre stage. Failure to embrace the latest sustainable practices into construction will leave projects at the mercy of a shifting climate. But with the intricacies and paradigms of this field constantly evolving, how can you ensure your knowledge and skills are both up-to-date and future-proof?
UCEM’s MSc Innovation in Sustainable Built Environments will give you the skills you need, both now in the future, to inspire and action change.
Find out more: MSc Innovation in Sustainable Built Environments – University College of Estate Management
 Czachor, E.M. (July 19, 2023) “Canadian wildfire maps show where fires continue to burn across Quebec, Ontario and other provinces”. CBS News. Available online at: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/map-canadian-wildfires-2023-where-are-the-fires-ontario-quebec/ [correct 07/08/2023].
 The Economist (July 20, 2023) How Cities can respond to extreme heat. The Economist.
 For example, Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, Massachusetts.
 International Energy Agency. (June 2023) Final Energy Consumption of Buildings Relative to Other Sectors. Available online at: Final energy consumption of buildings relative to other sectors, 2022 – Charts – Data & Statistics – IEA [correct 16/08/2023].
 Wright, M. April 2023. “How extreme weather threatens to bring down UK powerlines and halt supply to homes”. The Conversation. Available online at: How extreme weather threatens to bring down UK’s power lines and halt supply to homes (theconversation.com) [correct 16/08/2023].
 Hill, E. June 2014. “Elevation of buildings in Flood Prone Locations”. Floodlist.com. Available online at: Elevation of Buildings in Flood-Prone Locations – FloodList [correct 16/08/2023].