As we mark World Environment Day 2020, George Adams, SPIE UK’s Energy & Engineering Director, considers the role our buildings play in tackling climate change.

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Posted by SPIE UK

Climate change, as with COVID-19, is a global issue that is identifying the need for fundamental change in our global behavior. As the Earth warms, sea levels are rising, and rainfall and environmental pollution patterns are becoming more frequent in our daily lives. These changes bring an increase in flooding, droughts, heatwaves and wildfires and damage to infrastructure.

The climate changes are impacting harvests and displacing people from their homes. Extinction is a risk for more and more species are facing. Hundreds have disappeared already and we ourselves are not free from this risk. Global warming and climate change is happening and its effects are inescapable.

But climate change is also fast becoming a growing threat to the world economic structure and therefore our ability to invest in solving the problem. Morgan Stanley, the multinational investment bank and financial services company, has said that climate disasters in North America have cost $415 billion over the last few years.

Urban flooding


What's not often considered is that buildings are also very vulnerable to climate change. In the future, there will be significant increases in subsidence and flooding damage as well as in risks to health due to poor indoor air quality. All of these issues will lead to shorter building lifespans unless we adapt on a broad scale.

Adaptation can only occur if standards are enhanced, and as much effort is expanded on the existing stock as it is on new builds. For instance, a reaction to increasing heatwaves tends to be higher use of traditional air conditioning systems which leads to more energy consumption and further depletion of natural resources. In the future, we will need laws that require building owners to adapt their portfolio to climate change rather than continuing to rely on legacy systems that were designed for a different world.

The articles I write and the work I do always point to the need to switch energy sources, vastly increase energy efficiency, design adaptations to create greater resilience and to change how we use and operate buildings.

Engineers using BIM

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that we do have the ability to quickly bring together political, scientific, engineering and corporate entities from across the globe to innovate and collaborate to solve a common problem.

Therefore, there is no doubt that we can learn to adapt and repair the damage we have caused to the world during the last 150 years. However, to do so, we must learn to change ourselves, adapt our cities, create sustainable energy sources and fundamentally change our economic and political principles.

Government, practitioners, developers, owners, and professional bodies representing the built environment industry can address the climate change questions for new builds. But it's vital that we also collaborate on a huge scale to solve the problem of existing and largely inefficient buildings and how to mitigate their impact on the environment.


BIM Workstation

It is critical to work together to find solutions that can address several key issues:

  • How we can reduce embodied carbon in the chosen products and materials use
  • Understand how buildings can be adapted to be more resilient
  • Design existing buildings to use significantly less energy
  • Investigate how can sequestration be utilised at a city scale
  • Research how buildings can utilise new technology to reduce dependencies on centralised energy supplies
  • Explore how community-level energy solutions can be incorporated
  • Study how our existing urban areas can be made greener, have water recycling built-in and be protected against future flooding

I'm convinced that leadership and collaboration can emerge from the design, construction and facility maintenance organisations working with start-up innovators and data integrator providers to create new whole-life based solutions.

70 to 80 per cent of current buildings are likely to still be with us by 2050. Leaders from Government and the built environment will need to accept the need for change and scale-up and innovate in new ways to be able to adequately address the contribution to climate change that existing buildings and all that is associated with them make.

George Adams
Engineering & Energy Director, SPIE UK

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