A Better Built Environment for the Changing Environment

April 14, 2020

Designing for resiliency amid the inevitable impacts of climate change.

The infrastructure of our towns and cities – buildings, homes, roadways, buildings, land use –make up what we know as the built environment. These human-made environments are where we often live and work, and they strongly influence how we behave and feel, and can even impact our physical and mental well-being. Designing, planning and engineering these spaces is becoming increasingly complex as we work to mitigate the effects of climate change. The good news is, as designers, planners and engineers, we also have the unique opportunity to actively work towards modifying the built environment to withstand, and even offset, the impacts of climate change. To do that, it’s helpful to first start with an exploration of how we got to where we are today.

The Basics: Weather vs. Climate

Before looking at how our built environments must change, it’s helpful to first get a basic understanding of what we mean when we say climate change. People sometimes confuse the terms weather and climate, and while terms may seem similar on the surface, they describe two very different aspects of the atmospheric environment.

Weather refers to the day-to-day variability of our atmosphere. And as anyone who’s traveled from one state to another will tell you, the weather can vary greatly from place to place. It can change over minutes, hours, days and weeks.

Climate, on the other hand, describes long-term conditions in specific areas. Different regions have different climates, and when we talk about climate, we’re referring to averages of precipitation, temperature, humidity, sunshine and wind (among other things) that occur over a long period of time. Typical climatological practice analyzes 30 years of data to establish Climate Normals and look for patterns.

Visualization of weather vs. climate. Image courtesy of the National Centers for Environmental Information.

Looking Back on Our Changing Climate

Since the dawn of humankind, we have been influencing the world around us. From hunting and gathering to agricultural development to building roads, our species has always looked for ways to modify the environment around us to suit our needs and allow us to prosper. It wasn’t until the onset of the Industrial Revolution, however, when person and machine united that humans really started to have a significant impact.

The Industrial Revolution sparked a massive uptick in carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as the need for energy to power machines steadily grew. Technological investments and human growth continued to increase energy needs while wood, coal and then oil emerged as cheap energy options. 50 percent of our CO2 emissions since the year 1750 have occurred in the last 28 years; CO2 concentration is over 400 parts per million – a number that hasn’t been that high in the last 2 million years.

Cumulative CO2 emissions calculator. Image courtesy of Engaging Data; data courtesy of the Global Carbon Project.

We can measure these changes by looking through multiple lenses; ice core samples offer the longest record at 2 million years, but we also have centuries-long temperature records from Europe that demonstrate temperature changes over time. By looking at this data, we’re able to see the effects of a hotter climate: coral bleaching, heat waves, droughts, forest fires, and significant flooding and sea-level rise.

Modifying Our Built Environment

Even if we stop producing greenhouse gases today, the effects of climate change will continue to impact our world – including our built environments. As rainfall and humidity levels rise in certain areas, for example, designers will need to consider which building materials can respond effectively to increased moisture levels to prevent premature failure or loss of serviceability. Zoning and energy codes are reactive rather than proactive and will continue to lag behind the progression of climate change. Sea level rise will impact our critical coastal infrastructure, including homes, ports and naval bases.

When it comes to designing the built environment, it’s helpful to look at the Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves: 2018 Interim Report, a study released by the National Institute of Building Sciences that highlights how mitigation strategies can impact safety, and prevent property loss and disruption of day-to-day life. In terms of results, the report found:

  • For flood resistance, incorporating at least one foot of freeboard into the elevation requirements to comply with the 2018 I-Codes saved $6 for every $1 invested.

  • For resistance to hurricane winds, complying with roofing and a variety of openings and connection detailing requirements in the 2018 I-Codes saved $10 for every $1 invested.

  • For resistance to earthquakes, building new buildings stronger and stiffer relative to comply with the 2018 I-Codes saved $12 for every $1 invested.

The report determined that these benefits carry over to all building stakeholders, from developers to title holders and lenders, to tenants and communities. Here we see the real return on investment for making these design changes.

Creating Meaningful Change

RDG’s approach to climate change mitigation is rooted in our commitment to create meaning together. Regardless of the viewpoints or politics of ourselves or our clients, we look to create spaces that are well planned and designed and sustainable, something that’s evident in our involvement in the AIA 2030 Challenge. In practice, our climate-positive approach incorporates several key strategies:

  • Managing risk. By doing nothing, we increase the risk for all parties. It’s important to have conversations with clients as early on in a project as possible about the climate risks of a site and weigh the risks against the cost outcomes of responsive materials.

  • Leveraging technology. Resources like cove.tool provide energy use intensity baselines, so designers can better understand a building’s energy footprint. Geographic Information Systems allow planners to map things like topography, soils and flood zones to better understand a community’s overall landscape. Using a variety of advanced software options like these enable designers and planners to measure and test as they are making critical design decisions.

  • Designing and planning for the future. Each discipline offers its own expertise in creating built environments responsive to climate change. Landscape architects contribute an understanding of the impact of site and how sustainable a new design will be within the context of that site; urban planners look for adaptive reuse opportunities and consider the future of where climate migrants will go if places become uninhabitable; architects consider materiality, embodied carbon and look to lifecycle cost analyses when designing spaces; and MEPs consider low-flow fixtures, produce daylighting and fixture placement analyses and make use of “smart” mechanical systems.

Climate change indicators from the National Climate Assessment. Image courtesy of the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

Small steps can have a big impact. We all have a part in this, and if we commit to making a difference – to thinking differently about the way we interact with and modify our environment, the spaces and places we create can be resilient enough to withstand, or even offset, the inevitable impacts of climate change.