Adapting to Climate Change

Species often evolve most quickly when under stress: a change in the environment forces adaptive improvements and only the fittest survive. Much the same could be said for the built environment. Design imperatives ushered in by the threat of global climate change have driven rapid advances in quality, so in many parts of the world buildings are now more airtight, better insulated, better cooled, less wasteful of materials and generally more efficient than ever before.

The trouble with change

For the architects, engineers and developers who shape the future of the built environment, this is awkward. We know that our designs must be resilient to change, but since we cannot know the extent and timing of this change, there is a risk that our solutions may be under-designed, over-designed or just plain wrong.

“It’s true we are dealing with a great deal of uncertainty,” acknowledges David Symons, global leader of WSP’s Future Ready innovation programme. “But if we take the view that it’s all too difficult and we don’t do anything, we will end up with suboptimal design. There is no doubt that climate change will be a huge issue for designers, for cities, for entire populations, so burying our heads in the sand will result in the worst of all worlds.”

Responding to this uncertainty is as important as planning for the future. Many projects, particularly infrastructure, have long design lives of over 100 years, says Symons: “Even with the best information, there is massive uncertainty over sea level and storm activity over that period.” On a recent project to upgrade a coastal railway embankment near Poole in the UK, WSP advised that the design life be reduced from 110 to 35 years. “It’s much less expensive in capital cost, and the intervening time can be used to assess what’s best to do next.”

On other projects, a shorter design life is not the answer. Sometimes the chosen solution is to build in flexibility for the future, as on the proposed Crossrail 2 underground line for London. “We expect London to be hotter,” says Symons, “but we can’t know how much or quite how that will impact the underground. So we don’t build in huge air-conditioning systems now. Rather, we leave space for vents and plant that can be fitted later as necessary.”

Learning from disaster

Regulatory change may be necessary, then, if designers are to make the fullest contribution to a resilient future. This is echoed by social scientist Vivienne Ivory, technical principal with WSP Opus in New Zealand and a researcher at the University of Otago specialising in public health and urban environments. Ivory led a study of how the city of Christchurch is recovering from its two recent earthquakes, which revealed much about how society responds to disaster. “Though this was not a climate-related event, the destruction of homes and infrastructure is very much the kind of thing we are likely to see more of as extreme weather events such as cyclones and flooding become more frequent,” she points out.

The study found that different parts of the city are recovering at different rates. For example, those areas where it was possible to walk or cycle to shops or work are valued over those relying on cars. “One of the things that made a big difference was space,“ says Ivory. “Parks and squares became places where people came together and engaged with recovery. Space enabled the creation of pop-up functions — to replace amenities that had been lost — and this worked on every scale. We even saw a spare bit of sidewalk where old chiller cabinets had been turned into a free book exchange, a temporary library. So space which had initially provided refuge when disaster struck then provided leverage to help the city recover socially.”

Although the worst impacts are yet to come, the probability curves have already shifted. The one-in-100-year storm is now one-in-20. Michael Mondshine, WSP

Her conclusion was that city-wide resilience requires both local connectedness “and maybe some compromises on the rules about how public space is used”.

As businesses and governments develop their own responses to climate change, the notion of competitive advantage is likely to figure more prominently. “Investors don’t like risk,” says Symons, “they do like resilience. So it makes sense for an environmental regulation body, say, to talk about a country gaining economic advantage from being water resilient.”

Politicians and administrators are beginning to understand and respond to this approach. For example, WSP is advising an Irish county that intends to use its preparedness against climate risks as a differentiator to draw inward investment. Symons believes that money will be attracted to resilience at every level:

“If you are investing in a property, you don’t want it to flood or to become unlettable because it is overheating. You want it to be safe and successful. It’s important to realise that climate change is not just an issue for governments. There is a lot that corporations could and should be doing to make themselves resilient.”

“It is easy for climate risk to sound rather apocalyptic,” says Symons. “But with change comes opportunity. And those who understand the change and respond positively will be the ones to reap the rewards.”

This is an edited version of an article originally published by The Possible.
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