Homes for climate change

| 1st June 2009
Homes for change

Illustration: Clare Nicholas

Building a more sustainable future is vital if our societies are to survive in a post-fossil-fuel future – but, argues Susan Roaf, the way we build must itself first change

As more people consume more resources, pollute more and are increasingly addicted to the rapidly vanishing fossil fuel resource, the news from the warming world gets worse daily. Oil and gas are vital to the way we generate energy, grow, fertilise and refine food, make materials, move goods and people, keep ourselves warm or cool and do the work of our increasingly unequal and energy-hungry societies. But the cost of our oil-dependent lifestyles is proving too high, and as oil prices soared towards $150 a barrel in July 2008, food and energy costs rocketed, house prices and the global economy collapsed.

Experts around the world, such as Ross Garnaut in Australia and Nicholas Stern in Britain, have warned us that failure to act on climate change ‘would haunt humanity until the end of time’. As top-down politics increasingly looks to be failing society, there are many different bottom-up movements experimenting with models to ‘transition’ towards viable 21st-century societies and economies. But quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who is guarding the guardians? Apparently no-one.

Building designers and developers, for some inexplicable reason, have been able to get away with producing ever more exposed, vulnerable and energy-profligate buildings. This, despite a common understanding that buildings themselves are the greatest source of greenhouse gases on the planet and are our first and greatest defence against the elements. Again and again, so-called ’sustainable’ designers present their huge glass-box buildings that anyone with an iota of intelligence can see are environmental nightmares. Voices are increasingly raised against this systematic greenwashing by designers who are either fundamentally ignorant or unethical.

Passive buildings – using windows, walls and floors to collect, store and distribute the sun’s heat in the winter and reject it in the summer, and maximising daylight for interior illumination – are not ‘machines for living in’ but ecosystems in themselves. They need people to understand how they work and to sail them like ships in the wind. A boat or plane cannot operate without pilots, so why should a complex building be capable of being run by machines alone?

Like boats or planes, buildings are one part of the complex three-way relationship between themselves, people and the environment. Nor are people machines for living in buildings. Designers of traditional vernacular buildings knew this, but many designers today have little basic understanding of the connection between buildings and nature.

So how can better decisions on ways forward to a truly sustainable future be made? First, there needs to be a clear, agreed understanding of where we want to be in the future, and an action plan with effective strategies to get there. Central to this action plan is the need to combine the best of the tried and tested traditional solutions with the best of the emerging low-impact technologies in a truly 21st-century vernacular of locally appropriate buildings and cities. Because of the predicted magnitude and proximity of the temperature changes ahead we need a routemap, and future targets must be realistic, radical and woven into a continually evolving process of progress review and improvement.

The mean global temperature today is already around 1°C warmer than the 1860-1990 average, and under the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change A2 scenario for business-as-usual, will rise to 2°C as soon as 2045. It took 150 years for the temperature to rise 1°C, yet it will take only three or so decades from now until the 2°C threshold is passed. After that, as climate change rates rise exponentially, the +3°C global warming mark is passed after only 20 more years. The world is currently exceeding the A2 emissions scenario by some way. Many believe humanity has already passed the point of no return in terms of mitigating such high levels of temperature increase, and that the only hope now is to adapt to them while fighting a rearguard action against the threat of climate chaos. An effective routemap for adaptation might look something like the following:

1°C: Denial

It is necessary first to recognise the scale of the problem. At the 1°C warmer point, where temperatures stand today, there is still widespread ‘denial’. While many decisio nmakers espouse ‘sustainable development’, they patently still act otherwise. The Government and building and design professions continue to trumpet ‘sustainable communities’ and ‘zero-carbon buildings’ while supporting the interests of developers and manufacturers in applying regulations, policies and strategies for promoting – for instance – cheap, poorly performing buildings and buildings on flood plains. At a time of rapidly rising unemployment, poverty and social unrest, we can no longer allow our futures to be captive to the vested interests of the few over the many.

The evolving statutory and voluntary tools are often actually designed actively to encourage increased levels of emissions or to ignore their potentially lethal impacts. Examples of this are the Government’s failure effectively to regulate the financial markets before 2008 and to avoid the expansion of UK airports at a time of shrinking air travel.

Attempts to provide leadership in the field of sustainable development are similarly risible. In the ‘energy and CO2 emissions’ subcategory of the UK Code for Sustainable Homes, 2.5 points are given for the ‘reduced fabric heat-loss parameter’ of the house, 2.5 points for the inclusion of a cycle rack and 2.5 points for energy-efficient external lighting. How much cheaper to buy a low-energy light bulb than to construct a robust building? Under the current UK Building Regulations it is possible for a fully air-conditioned building with fixed windows to achieve an A-rating, but not for the same building, naturally ventilated with opening windows. In the US Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, buildings must have central air conditioning systems in order to qualify for the efficient energy points that merit a Gold or Platinum rating.

To date, the most systematically effective tool devised to provide incontrovertible evidence of building performance has been the use of actual performance measurements in real buildings through the European Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) process. This has demonstrated that the business-as-usual obsession with ‘efficiency’ has led to some very poor ‘green’ buildings. The genius of the EPBD approach is to look at the performance of the whole building as used. Inevitably, however, the lobbyists have been at work again, and as effectively as ever: even now the EU government is busy watering down the directive to require only modelled performance to be displayed, to address construction and investment industry concerns.

2°C: Sense and science

At a time when civil unrest grows, fuelled inevitably by rising fuel poverty (30 per cent of Scottish homes are now deemed to be occupied by the fuel poor) there needs to be a rethinking, a 2°C sense and science (S&S) approach. Credible solutions to many emission-related problems exist and have for decades been espoused by many, such as Amory Lovins, for instance, as the ‘technical fix approach’. Lovins’ work on ‘factor four’ reductions in resource use – predicated on the doubling of production output commensurate with the halving of resource use and related environmental impacts – is seen as a credible foundation on which a low-carbon and resource-efficient economy could be built. How this approach deals with rapid climate change is less clear.

The S&S approach is exemplified by the ‘Beating the Heat’ report published by Jake Hacker of Arup and Stephen Belcher, in which a range of building types, including homes, schools and hospitals, are systematically modelled in future climates, and modified and remodelled to review the cost and energy benefits of various different adaptational strategies. By looking at heat gains and losses, solar gain, windows, ventilation, temperature, humidity, wind speed, thermal mass, insulation, fabric performance and internal gains, buildings proved capable of being sensibly modified to remain habitable in a warmer future.

To achieve this the best buildings have an appropriate form, have thermal mass, are naturally ventilated and shaded from the summer sun, and generate much of their own energy. Efficient equipment plays a part in this mix but is not as important as getting the basic architecture of the building right, learning how buildings provide shelter and thermal comfort in reality, and using adaptive standards that are central to the design of truly passive buildings. The next step in that process is then to run the buildings, as far as possible, on clean renewable energy.

The S&S approach should be adopted universally today, and can be funded through conventional routes, by the construction industry, with governments and citizens themselves. S&S is the foundation on which can be built the 3°C community level and society centred solutions.

3°C: Solutions and strong communities

The scale of the adaptation required if we are to survive 3°C of climate change with our societies intact is enormous, and will require strong governments and strong communities alike to succeed. If we are to achieve a generation of truly low-energy buildings, to manage the retreat of communities from coastal and riverine flood plains, to retool our industry for the low-carbon, fossil-fuel-free future, we need strong and visionary government.

We are not talking about simply rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic; we are looking at the need – in the face of growing global populations, increasing resource-depletion and the slowing and possible eventual collapse of the growth economies – to change the direction our lives and societies are heading in. This means a reordering of society in such a way that equality of opportunity and access to resources becomes a reality, and such that the impacts of climate change are not disproportionately loaded on to one sector of society to the benefit of others.

In his book The Impact of Inequality, Richard Wilkinson argued that social inequality has malign effects on public health, and that all societies fall on a continuum of degrees of social inequality. He posited that one way to cope with a challenge to society is explicitly to reduce the level of social inequality. During the war years, the Government explicitly created and imposed a greater degree of social equality, which made society better able and more willing to cope with the challenges facing it. Wilkinson has gone on to develop this idea in his 2009 book with Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better.

Robert D. Putnam wrote of the US’s declining social capital in Bowling Alone in 2000. He ably demonstrated that the past three decades of the 20th century had seen a fundamental shift in political and civic engagement, informal social ties, tolerance and trust in our communities. MK Smith points out in his article on Wilkinson in The Encyclopaedia of Informal Education: ‘We are not talking here simply about nostalgia for the 1950s. School performance, public health, crime rates, clinical depression, tax compliance, philanthropy, race relations, community development, census returns, teen suicide, economic productivity, campaign finance, even simple human happiness – all are demonstrably affected by how (and whether) we connect with our family, friends, neighbours and co-workers’.

Many now question the priorities of our ‘Maslow’ society, where self-actualisation needs are at the top of our aspirational triangle and the need for food, air water, rest and freedom are at its base. It is actually those basic needs that are now threatened in many regions of the world, and farsighted movements see that rather than abandoning collective responsibility for their provision, working together at the local level may well prove to be the most effective way of achieving them.

The popularity of organisations such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the Campaign to Stop Climate Change has done much to develop and promote low-carbon and sustainable building and community thinking. Youth groups such as People & Planet are aiming to radicalise school and university students to become agents of change in their own futures. Perhaps the most successful of the current movements is that of the Transition Towns, which have benefited from a range of well-thought-out action planning processes at the group, community and the city level. Individuals often feel powerless when acting alone and top-down politics for the built environment simply does not seem to be working to protect ordinary people. Rather it too often promotes the importance of conventional wisdom, the status quo and overriding need to perpetuate the power of the market-driven economy.

A call to arms

It is the responsibility of our generation to rebuild our world in such a way that our children and children’s children can survive decently in a post-fossil-fuel future in a rapidly changing climate. The scale of this apparently simple task is exacerbated by the fact that we are increasingly exceeding the capacity of many ecosystems to support human societies in the expectations to which they have become accustomed over the last century.

We are through the 1°C warmer stage in the evolution of modern society – it’s time to be done with denial – while 2°C solutions must involve sense and science: low-carbon buildings, technologies, communities, economies and societies. In the built environment this requires a systematic root-and-branch review of the form and functioning of our related professions, and the policies, guidelines, regulations and standards they use to inform the form of our built environment.

We must now begin to put into place the 3°C solutions, however, to strengthen our communities and protect them in resilient, robust and safe low-carbon buildings. To do so involves a reordering of our social structures on a bedrock of equity of opportunity and resource allocation, because without it, no-one will be safe in a rapidly changing world. To do so requires us to reduce the exposure and the vulnerability of our populations to the growing economic, social and environmental hazards ahead, which in turn will require huge financial investment and difficult decisions. This requires all of us to act for the benefit of the greater good rather than ‘self-actualisation’. That might be difficult.

Adapted from the forthcoming second edition of Adapting Buildings and Cities for Climate Change (Architectural Press), to be published September 2009

Susan Roaf is professor of architectural engineering at the School of the Built Environment, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, where she teaches on the Masters courses in architectural engineering and sustainable community design




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