Designing For Climate Change

Designing For Climate Change

There is no better time than now to set about building the ‘green way’ or to turn your existing building from a greenhouse gas offender into an energy saving model for the future – this is the message coming out of the landmark bargain struck on climate change at the UN Climate Conference recently held in Paris.

While there are still some outliers, the evidence supporting climate change is hard to dispute. Scientists reckon that even if we put an immediate end to all greenhouse gases, the climate is still set to change sooner rather than later. It’s no longer a matter of if, but to what degree. In fact, the consequences are already being felt. South Africa is suffering a severe drought (spurred on by El Nino) with 2016 predicted to be the warmest year on record for a long time.

Overall global temperature readings have risen by an incremental 0.8°C since before the Industrial Revolution and could increase by a further 6.1°C by the end of the 21st century. This is according to a report by the US Global Change Research Program (published June 2009). That’s quite a rapid rise – by impacting on our environment so heavily, we have, in effect, sped up climate change. This is why its impact is going to affect us so profoundly, and most notably in terms of our resources, compounding the importance of energy saving.     

It is unlikely we’ll be able to reverse the effects of climate change but certainly, we must try to slow them down. It is our responsibility to design energy saving buildings that help reduce carbon-based emissions and so avert even more intense climate change. 2030 is the milestone for carbon-neutral buildings. It’s going to be a stretch, particularly for countries on the lower end of the socio-economic scale.

Adaptation Equals Energy Savings

Green building is, however, also about designing workspaces and homes that can adapt to a climate influx. It is about identifying and incorporating elements of passive survivability and sustainability – like building a home at a reasonable height above flood level because prevention is better than cure; or like water harvesting; and harnessing solar power. Even urban planning is involved in the effort to mitigate climate change with some places, like USA’s California, instituting climate change adaptation strategies.

Using our resources carefully equals energy saving, usually in multiple ways. For example, by using locally cultivated FSC wood, you’re supporting your community and its decision to farm sustainably. You’re also cutting your carbon footprint as the wood does not need to travel great distances to get to a site. The same applies to locally-sourced reclaimed wood and building materials.

Your priorities when it comes to building will depend on conditions relevant to your location. Here in South Africa our focus will likely fall on keeping our homes cool and having enough potable water.

Insulation for passive heating and cooling, such as ISOTHERM, which is locally manufactured from recycled PET plastic bottles is again an example of energy saving on multiple levels. Firstly you’re supporting a local business that practices sustainable production and you save on the cost and energy of running air conditioners and fans as insulation prevents conductive heat gain.

Other passive energy saving measures includes correct orientation of the house (as far as the immediate environment allows, of course); using plants and trees strategically positioned to cast shade when the sun’s at its peak; glazing and/or blinds on the windows; and extended eaves. You can build skylights to ensure you cut the heat but not the welcome natural light.

In locations with a low relative humidity, a building can be designed to rely entirely on natural ventilation. In those areas with a high relative humidity, natural ventilation is a great back-up plan but not adequate on a daily basis.

Your greenery can extend further than shade provision. Green roofs are increasingly popular; in fact, converting any disused or abandoned patch of earth into a mini-haven is a good move. Green roofs, for example, not only assist with passive temperature control within your home or office and prevent excess runoff but are a great place to grow herbs and vegetables, so utilising every available space. Not to mention that plants play a direct role in offsetting our carbon footprint and are aesthetically pleasing, so the more, the merrier. This bodes well for the future, though green roofs are yet to take off in South Africa.

When choosing plants, remember to go with indigenous, water-wise plants that support the mini-ecosystems within your environment, such as the birds, bees and other useful bugs. The goal of building green is to blend in with your surroundings. Conscious landscaping goes a long way to creating seamless home and office designs that complement their immediate environment and can adapt to the more extreme effects that we can expect from climate change.

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