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CURRENTS: FIRST READ
Adapting to Climate Change

While the need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions is greater than ever, we now also ought to focus attention on adapting our buildings to the inevitable impacts of climate change.

11/2009

By Alex Wilson

Climate change is no longer a question of whether or when. It is a reality. Northern regions have experienced significant warming in the past few decades. Glaciers and pack ice in the Antarctic and Arctic are melting at an alarming rate. Rising sea levels are driving residents of some low-lying island countries from their homes. Changing precipitation patterns are turning arable land into deserts and exacerbating forest fires. And powerful storms are appearing in unusual places with devastating ferocity. Worse, the pace of these changes has surpassed even the most dire predictions of a few years ago.

Performance Matters
Image © Alex Nabaum
So what does Adaptation look like? How can we integrate climate change into our design?
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A new report on the impacts of climate change that will be seen in the U. S. paints the clearest picture yet of what’s ahead. The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), a multi-agency research effort set up under the George W. Bush Administration, produced “Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States” (available at www.globalchange.gov), a document that provides sobering projections about specific climate-change impacts for different regions of the country. The impacts in the U.S. of the “unequivocal” global warming that is occurring, according to the report, will include higher temperatures in every region, greater incidence of intense rainfall events in the Northeast, droughts in the West, rising sea levels that will inundate key roadways and ports along the Gulf Coast, increased crop pests and reduced crop production in the Midwest, and rising heat-related deaths in cities.

The bottom line is that we must redouble efforts to mitigate (prevent or slow) climate change, but at the same time, we as designers, planners, and developers, must create buildings and communities that can adapt to a changing climate. Even if we were to somehow turn off the greenhouse-gas spigot tomorrow, global warming will continue.

The USGCRP report suggests that even with the most optimistic reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, we can still expect 4 to 6.5 degrees Fahrenheit of warming in the U.S. by the end of the century—and 7 to 11 degrees Fahrenheit without significant emission reductions.

So what does adaptation look like? How can we integrate the anticipation of climate change into our designs? Doing this takes many forms and applies at different scales: from the individual building to the community and region. A few examples of specific strategies for incorporating adaptation in planning and design are shown in the accompanying sidebar.

As the realities of climate change increasingly move from the technical reports of climate scientists to practitioners, and as the remaining naysayers are finally forced to concede their positions to overwhelming evidence, we in the design profession will have to address these realities in our work. Building codes will mandate that we design buildings and communities that will adapt to climate change, and building for future conditions may soon become part of the building professional’s “standard of care.”

ADAPTATION: A SAMPLING OF STRATEGIES

DESIGN FOR POWER OUTAGES

Incorporate passive survivability into buildings. Design buildings that will maintain livable conditions in the event of power outages, which are likely to become more common with climate change. Strategies include high-insulation levels, top-performance glazing, cooling-load avoidance measures, natural ventilation, daylighting, and renewable energy systems.

DESIGN FOR WARMER TEMPERATURES

Raise the cooling design temperature when modeling buildings and sizing mechanical equipment. Our buildings will experience higher temperatures than most present energy modeling predicts, and they should be able to function well in those conditions.

Incorporate more robust cooling-load-avoidance strategies into buildings. For example, limit glazing areas, particularly on east and west facades; increase insulation levels; landscape spaces to provide vegetative shading; and specify only the most efficient lighting, appliances, and office equipment to limit internal gains.

Recognize that termite ranges will extend northward.

DESIGN FOR MORE INTENSE STORMS, FLOODING, AND RISING SEA LEVELS

Design buildings to satisfy rigorous hurricane codes.

Build on higher ground. 100-year floods are the new 10-year floods—plan accordingly.

Increase stormwater capacity. More intense storms mean greater stormwater flows, straining the capacity of conventional systems. In expanding that capacity, try to rely on ecologically responsible features, such as constructed wetlands.

Specify materials that can survive wetting. Particularly on lower floors, use finish materials that can get wet and dry out without supporting mold growth. Design wall cavities that can drain and dry if flooding occurs.

DESIGN FOR DROUGHT

Avoid development in the driest areas. Gauge the long-term availability of water before embarking on a project.

Plumb buildings for graywater separation. Even if current codes do not allow graywater systems, configure plumbing so that such systems can later be added.

Plant drought-resistant, native plants.

DESIGN FOR WILDFIRE

Avoid development in fire-prone areas, which are expanding.

Follow fire-safe design and construction practices.

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This article appeared in the November 2009 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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