CQ Blog: Buildings are not coke cans

21 Mar 2016

By Guy Thompson 

As we gear up for Ecobuild, I can’t help wondering where the next game-changing idea will come from, with sustainability now such a confirmed part of the mainstream. A burning issue being discussed in Europe is the “circular economy”, the ideal of a world in which everything is recycled and nothing is wasted. For construction, this would be a seismic change. We must act now to mitigate the immediate effects of climate change – but don’t lose sight of the bigger picture, writes Guy Thompson

We are in the eye of a perfect storm. Projected onto an already complex built environment, we face a wide range of present and future issues and threats, requiring responses from an equally wide range of responsible agencies and participants. Thus it’s going to take a  multi-faceted approach to ensure our housing, buildings and infrastructure are resilient to climate change. Our solutions must address the current focus on carbon and energy reduction as well as longer-term issues and impacts. We need to fight a parallel war against the more immediate effects – especially flooding and drought – as well as the predicted longer-term impacts such as overheating and more frequent extreme weather events.

Designers need to recognise the convergence and potential conflicts in the mitigation and adaptation strands of building and infrastructure design. For example, we will have to rebalance the emphasis on ever greater levels of insulation to save heating energy with a greater drive on preventing overheating to reduce the likely energy demand for cooling. None of this is entirely new. But it is made more difficult by the emphasis emerging from Europe, which in order to promote growth is beginning to prioritise economic concerns over both social and environmental ones. This is perhaps understandable during times  of economic crisis, but can be dangerous in the long term. This new emphasis is already evident in the UK, where the government remains formally committed to carbon reduction targets for 2050 and 2080, but has delayed uplifts in energy standards via Building Regulations until 2018/19. While increasing housing supply is a key priority, failing to reduce emissions now may cost us dearly later on. A truly efficient approach to materials would see us building more with less as well as more for less.

The importance of making buildings and infrastructure resilient to extreme weather events is now being recognised, following a series of devastating weather events over recent years. The Department for Communities and Local Government has estimated that 87% of our current buildings will still exist in 2050, so we will need to carry out considerable adaptation work, as well as designing new buildings to be resilient to a range of impacts. These will include flooding, drought, higher temperatures, high winds and storms and potential power outages, as well as increased threats of combustion and to security in denser urban environments. If cities continue  to track the projected UK growth rate, we expect to see 5.2 million extra city dwellers by 2037. At  the same time, the number of people over 85 is set to double  by 2030, further complicating the challenge. 

We ought to encourage the design of buildings to last longer, and be more adaptable.

The National Infrastructure Plan 2010 highlighted climate change as a factor in the growing threat of “cascade failures” between energy, transport, ICT, waste and water infrastructure. This is where a breakdown in one system has knock-on effects on others. For example, if the power network is taken out by flooding, how does this impact on communications or essential building systems? On a positive note, there are a number of initiatives providing much-needed joined-up thinking– the roll-call of their members indicates the scale of the challenge that faces us. The London Climate Change Partnership, for example, includes local and national government agencies, utilities providers, insurers, charities, universities and industry bodies including The Concrete Centre. 

Designers will also find many facets of resilience are covered by voluntary schemes such as BREEAM and CEEQUAL, and the new Homes Quality Mark. We have yet to see true resilience embedded in mandatory guidelines, but these at least provide an excellent starting point for those who want to get ahead while the policy environment catches up. 

Guy Thompson is head of architecture, sustainability and housing at The Concrete Centre