In light of this summer’s unprecedented heatwave, Ramboll’s Andrew Mather outlines the urgent need to adapt our buildings to rising temperatures.
Until relatively recently the reality of the climate emergency may have seemed a distant issue for those living in the UK.
Now, that reality is very much here and present. This summer and its heatwaves have shown what the climate science has been saying all along. Our future of extreme temperatures has arrived, and, sadly, extreme weather will only become increasingly prevalent.
With red warnings in our forecasts and records soaring to previously-unthinkable new highs, it is of the utmost importance that our society and its built environment and infrastructure adapts accordingly, for the health and prosperity of all communities.
Reframing our approach
As a first step, we urgently need to change the way we think about designing our homes and buildings going forwards, and as part of this we need to adapt how we appraise our existing buildings too.
The Climate Change Committee has consistently emphasised the need to address the risk of overheating and fill the policy and funding void around retrofitting buildings to operate in extreme temperatures. Now, we must stop dragging our feet.
An important guide for framing our approach, and a popular topic within sustainability circles currently, is considering not just single materiality but also double materiality. Single materiality refers to impacts important to a company, whereas double materiality also refers to the effects the company’s actions have on wider society and the environment.
Going forward, choices about our built environment must be made through the lens of double materiality.
A holistic view of mitigating extreme heat in any development must then become the norm, catering for both immediate factors such as residents’ health and comfort and the health of the surrounding community and ecosystems too.
The impact of physical measures
The natural world and other traditionally hotter countries offer several learnings for us to mitigate extreme heat in our built environment.
Nature-based solutions like green roofs and green infrastructure like parks can help keep local areas cool.
Lining streets with trees, for example, is a simple and accessible method of protecting against the urban heat island effect.
Physical planning techniques such as building orientation, reducing glass on south facing facades and incorporating exterior shading, should also be utilised, and they often come with co-benefits too (such as reduced energy costs).
Overheating has only just found a place amongst our building regulations and we have a large gap to cross in a short time to make our built environment fit for purpose in our new temperatures.
This requires significant investment, however looking at the recent past, investors alone cannot be relied upon to close this gap, as climate adaptation has been of seemingly little significance to their yields and short-term hold periods.
The status quo clearly isn’t working. Change in our homes will start with change in the market, and so we need the coordinated forces of regulation and investment to join together, and create a business case for a national housing stock that is ready for our adapted climate.
Both new builds and retrofitted homes must be included in this and, crucially, homes in areas across income brackets, in order to achieve a “just-transition”.
We must call for strong policy to develop our existing building regulations to a set fit for purpose – for example, expanding the Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards (MEES) into Climate Adaptation Standards that include ratings for climate hazards such as heat mitigation.
As precedented by the Italian scheme where homeowners receive a tax break in return for their participation, we also need a government funding scheme for individuals to undertake home improvements against climate risk too.
Finally, and simply, we must see better communication about choices that built environment stakeholders can make to mitigate extreme heat, alongside their full implications, so more decision makers can truly understand the benefit of nature-based solutions.
This isn’t an issue we can push to the back of our minds as a problem for the future. We must mobilise education and activity now, and adapt our building stock, because this issue isn’t going away.
Andrew Mather is director of strategic sustainability at Ramboll.