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Viewpoint: The climate of change

Technology Strategy Board’s Fionnuala Costello says our built environment needs to be adaptable

One of the major challenges for the future built environment is climate change. Everyone is familiar with the drive for mitigation to radically reduce our CO2 emissions through target setting over the past years but adaptation is new on the block.

How do we adapt buildings to be comfortable and structurally sound over their lifetime? What should we be looking at now to prepare us for tomorrow?

A report launched in June by architect Bill Gething presented the key design challenges for adapting to the future climate and how to interpret the scientific climate data for building design projects.

Design for Future Climate: opportunities for adaptation in the built environment” was commissioned and published by the Technology Strategy Board to stimulate discussion on building adaptation among structural and civil engineers, architects and design teams.

The report identifies the main predicted impacts of the future climate detailing the current design processes that will need to change and rules of thumb that will no longer hold for three main areas of design: thermal comfort, construction and water.

For an example from geotechnics, predicted summer droughts in areas of high clay soils will increase soil shrinkage, heave and subsidence, with potential damage to underground pipework, collapse of landscaped slopes and retaining structures.

It is believed that significant work would be needed on the sewer system. Higher winter rainfall will make the management of surface water run-off crucial in avoiding overwhelming of sewers.

Recurring flooding from extreme rainfall, overtopping or breaching of flood defences will need investment in defences to protect our infrastructure and assets .The climate projections indicate a worst case scenario of rising sea levels by 2m in south east England.

The report highlights the risks of high wind speeds during extreme storm events. Unfortunately there is no data in the climate projections on future wind loading due to excessive uncertainties in the models. In response the Association of British Insurers has simply doubled or tripled the recommended factors of safety in design codes and standards.

The structural frame and foundations need to survive for the life of the building and this report collates some evidence that will help to convince clients of the need to manage risks by investing in robust structures that will not require expensive underpinning later.

Adaptation may not be simply a building design issue and lifestyle changes, for example the use of the siesta, may overcome the need for cooling of buildings in summer.

In all cases, buildings designed to passively manage internal thermal comfort will perform better as the climate warms than buildings designed to be cooled simply by air conditioning.

The Technology Strategy Board is running a competition to fund design teams on 25-30 building projects to create adaptation strategies for their buildings and the results of these studies will be presented at an event in summer 2011. To enter submit an application by 22 July at

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