Building Design, Climate Change, Green Building

How Climate Change is Influencing Green Building Design

The frequency and severity of natural disasters is a subject much studied by scientists, as we struggle to understand the condition of our fragile planet. Now, experts in risk management are making their own conclusions based on scientific evidence.

The United Nations’ head of disaster planning is warning that failure to prepare for inevitable natural disasters will have “inconceivably bad” consequences, especially in light of cascading tragedies, where one event kicks off another equally destructive one.

Resilient design, as defined by the Resilient Design Institute, is the intentional design of buildings, landscapes, communities, and regions in order to respond to natural and manmade disasters and disturbances—as well as long-term changes resulting from climate change—including sea level rise, increased frequency of heat waves, and regional drought.

Climate change is influencing the way architects and engineers think about the buildings they design and build. Looking at the change in weather patterns in certain geographic regions, and how to make a building self-sufficient with smart energy use and water management all contribute to its ability to being resilient in an ever changing environment.


Place Influences Design


A key consideration before designing any new building is place. The different regions in the world experience vastly difference climates. From hurricanes in Florida, drought in sub-Saharan Africa, to mudslides in Guatemala and tsunamis in Indonesia, each place presents a new set of challenges.

Alex Wilson, who heads up the Resilient Design Institute, wrote an article in response to hurricane Katrina, stating that they needed to carefully look at how buildings were developed on the Gulf Coast.

When taking a closer look at New Orleans after Katrina, in the days with no electricity it was found that older homes fared better than newer homes. The older homes were designed with wrap around verandas and natural ventilation keeping them cooler, while the newer homes were designed for air conditioning.

An excellent example of resiliency is Brock Environmental Center in Virginia Beach. Owned by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), the building features several key elements such as wind turbines that can withstand hurricane force winds, natural ventilation, daylighting, rainwater catchment, composting toilets and recycled water.

The building is also elevated, as it’s near the bay, to avoid storm surges.

The building is designed not to just withstand a natural disaster, but to thrive in it. The Brock Center will serve as a sort of resilience hub, allowing local residents to charge their cell phones and laptops during power outages, fill up on fresh water and use restrooms.


Reducing Energy Consumption


Reducing energy consumption continues to be the top reason for building green. The United Nations Evironmental Programme (UNEP), states that buildings account for 40% of the world’s energy use, which is higher than that consumed by the transport industry. It is projected that in the next 25 years, emissions from buildings are going to grow faster than any other sector. Emissions from commercial buildings leading the pack with 1.8% a year.

According to the Journal of Green Buildings, energy use during its lifetime causes up to 90% of its environmental impact. Reducing the energy consumption of buildings is such an important issue that it is rated the #1 reason for building a greener building. The table below shows the results from Dodge Data and Analytics, report on World Green Building Trends 2016, ranking the reasons for building green according to global importance.


Reducing the energy used in buildings is an environmental imperative. Architects can look toward solar panels and wind turbines to produce the energy it requires. A reliable and decentralized power grid, powered entirely by renewable energy, supplied to incredibly efficient buildings and infrastructure without the negative externalities associated with combustion or fission.

Heating and ventilation air conditioning (HVAC) systems have seen numerous innovations that lower a buildings energy usage. Vernacular design promotes natural ventilation in buildings, while radiant heating and cooling systems are a highly effective and efficient means of creating thermal comfort within a building. A radiant system can reduce power usage by up to 60% when compared with traditional HVAC systems.

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Reducing Water Usage


Water scarcity is quickly becoming a serious problem as many countries around the world face severe shortages and compromised water quality. The impact of climate change, highly unsustainable water use patterns and the continued drawdown of major aquifers contribute to significant problems ahead.

The way people use water and define ‘waste’ needs to be realigned, so that water is once again respected as a precious resource.

Buildings need to strike a balance between their water use and release. Designing a water neutral, or better yet, a water positive building is certainly possible in almost all built environments. The use of a closed loop water system and recycling used water can reduce usage substantially.

Additionally, all storm water and water discharge, including grey and black water, can be treated and managed through re-use, a closed loop system or infiltration.

It is important to note that some water re-use initiatives are illegal as they are hampered by outdated building regulations.


Comfort and Happiness


Designing a building around the happiness and comfort of its occupants is a trend that has seen steady growth in recent years. Biophilic design, uses nature as its inspiration to create spaces that promote physical and psychological well-being. This approach to design has the added benefit of increasing worker productivity, reducing the environmental impact of a building and lowering operating costs.

Many built environments do not provide optimal conditions, where health, productivity and human potential are adversely affected by these buildings. According to the Living Buildings Challenge, attention needs to be paid to focusing on the major pathways of health. In doing so environments are designed to optimize the well-being of its occupants.

An optimal space is created by maintaining air quality, thermal comfort and visual comfort. The concern with indoor air quality, combined with the focus on healthier neighborhoods, reveals that health and well-being is a key priority for green building design in China, more than in many other countries included in the World Green Buildings Trends 2016 report. Indoor air quality can be maintained through the use of a Dedicated Outdoor Air Systems (DOAS) that uses a series of filters to purify the air as it enters the building.

ASHRAE Standard 55 states that thermal comfort is the condition of mind that expresses satisfaction with the thermal environment and is assessed by subjective evaluation. Radiant cooling is fast becoming the leading technology in providing optimal thermal comfort. When combining a radiant cooling system with a DOAS, buildings are able to achieve and maintain thermal comfort and air quality with relative ease.

Large windows and high ceilings allow masses of natural light to enter a building. Natural light improves visual comfort within a buildings and reduces the glare from artificial/ florescent lighting.


Looking To The Future


There are countless strategies for adapting building design to the effects of climate change, most of which are relatively straightforward:

  • Reduce energy use and the carbon footprint of a building.
  • Design and build according to the place and the unique set of challenges posed by the location.
  • Reduce water usage and recycle waste water.
  • Build comfortable environments that improve air quality, thermal comfort and visual comfort.

There are other factors that can pose more complex challenges such as significant cultural and economic shifts, alternate transport systems, new agricultural practices and food systems, more localized economies and stronger neighborhoods and communities. Mastering these challenges will make us more resilient to change and uncertainty.

Many of the major trends in building sustainable buildings extend beyond the building itself. It takes a more holistic view of the impact of a building on its immediate and extended environment and how these buildings can enhance the build environment.

The good news is that all these measures help mitigate the effects of climate change and produce a win-win situation. The reduction in operating costs, improved durability and increased efficiency benefits both building owners and the planet.

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