How Do We Future-Proof Our Buildings?

©. Juraj Mikurcik/ a passivhaus in UK

In the face of the recent IPCC report, this is something that we have to do right now.

This site has written many posts on how to design a building that is low energy, low carbon, and resilient in the face of a changing climate. It's one of the reasons I am so fond of the Passivhaus standard; it requires so little energy to heat or cool. But energy consumption isn't the only thing we have to worry about in a changing world: writing in Passive House Plus magazine, Kate de Selincourt looks at what we have to do to build truly future-proof buildings. It was obviously written before the recent release of the IPCC report but is now even more relevant.

Heat (or Cold?)

Kate de Selincourt is writing from the UK, where nobody really knows what is going to happen to the climate. It has been getting hotter, but that could change:

One of the wildest of wild cards is the potential of a rapid slow-down in the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) leaving the UK and Ireland with a much colder climate... similar to that of other regions at a similar latitude (think Newfoundland or the Baltic).

It's tough trying to plan when faced with such scenarios, but she takes a shot at it. The first and most obvious (especially in a magazine called Passive House Plus) is to build everything to the Passivhaus standard, starting right now. de Selincourt reminds us: "...while there is a common misconception that low energy houses will be hotter in summer, in reality insulation and airtightness are also valuable tools for keeping them cool and comfortable during hot weather."She also reiterates a point that took me a long time to come around to -- that air conditioning isn't totally evil. "At which point, given that we accept that it is legitimate to heat a cold space, does it not also become acceptable to cool a hot one?" At least in a Passivhaus building you don't need very much of it.

No more flat roofs

CC BY 2.0. Forgemind ArchiMedia/ Villa Savoye

Forgemind ArchiMedia/ Villa Savoye/CC BY 2.0

Here it gets very interesting. It might well be a much wetter climate, and buildings should be designed to cope with a lot of rain. According to architect Andrew Yeats:

If clients ask for a flat roof I just say no. For an exposed location I insist on a steeply pitched roof, big overhangs and big gutters, and I won’t have anything to do with balconies or parapets.

This is a subject we have discussed before, noting that in many very windy climates, buildings do not have big overhangs because of wind uplift. This problem might actually get worse, so Dublin architect Joseph Little warns that wind uplift calculations may need to be rethought, and roofing practices reconsidered.

Dealing with drywall mush

We recently wrote about alternatives to drywall that could cope with flooding, but in the end, nothing can compete in price. However, one design consultancy, URBED, came up with a really simple idea that makes a lot of sense:

Some of their recommendations are very simple – such as fitting plasterboard horizontally across a wall so less needs to be removed when only the bottom foot or so of a wall is damaged, or using water-resistant materials such as magnesium oxide boards instead.

In praise of Dumb Boxes

credit: Energiesprong

Energiesprong/CC BY 2.0

Kate de Selincourt closes with a subject dear to my heart, quoting our post In praise of the dumb box, where we discussed the benefits of simple building forms. She quotes Mike Eliason, who noted that “‘dumb boxes’ are the least expensive, the least carbon-intensive, the most resilient, and have some of the lowest operational costs compared to a more varied and intensive massing.” And me: "Every time a building has to turn a corner, costs are added. New details are required, more flashing, more materials, more complicated roofing. Each move has a corresponding cost associated with it."

There are other issues that de Selincourt doesn't cover, such as choices of site, embodied carbon of materials, transport energy intensity, or whether we should even be building new single-family dwellings at all. While the article talks briefly about retrofits, it is clearly a subject that needs far more attention.

But given the urgency of the IPCC report, it is clear that we have to think about all of these issues right now, if we are going to get to zero carbon by 2030. Read the whole wonderful article at Passive House Plus.