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Adapting the built environment

How can we adapt the built environment to be as effective as possible under a changing climate? Read more.
The Forum Building - University of Exeter

In Tristan’s video, he introduced a range of techniques for making buildings more resilient to a changing climate. Let’s explore some more ways in which the built environment can be adapted, first with new builds and then by upgrading the existing building stock.


Good building design starts at the construction phase. To mitigate climate change and reduce the environmental impact of construction, many companies are sourcing their materials more responsibly, reducing transportation costs and planting trees alongside new built environments. But buildings need to be resilient to changes occurring around them – including beneath them.

As precipitation and temperature patterns start to vary, the ground beneath a building can change its water content. Following a heatwave in 2002, insurance claims for building subsidence in the UK rose by 68% over the next year. This can happen if there is too much water in the ground too, leading to the ground swelling. Older buildings are more at risk as building regulations for building foundations have only recently been introduced. As a result, there is a clear need to produce buildings that can withstand these changes.

Adaptation is also about knowing where it is and isn’t sensible to build. Sloped areas have been traditionally okay to build on, but we may need to become smarter about building on areas that could destabilize with repeated over-wetting and over-drying on a seasonal, cyclical basis. This is proving tricky though with population increases and expanding cities. In the UK, we’re running out of good quality land to build on.

Comfortable, sustainable buildings

But assuming a building has been built and isn’t likely to subside any time soon, there is now the challenge of designing them to be as comfortable as possible with hotter summers. Glass is a popular building material – it lets in natural light and makes buildings look nicer. It also has the effect of warming the building naturally as it traps the sun’s heat in, like a greenhouse. But what seems like a great thing should be carefully designed.

If heatwaves become more prevalent, the last place you’d want to be is in a greenhouse! Buildings should be designed to be comfortable in all weathers, including the likely possibility of heatwaves. Providing areas of shading beneath glassed areas allows for a good temperature to be maintained. Similarly, innovation with ventilation and air-tight design can make a building ‘breathe’ to maintain temperature, rather than use heating and air conditioning.

University of Exeter forum building The Forum building at the University of Exeter was designed with sustainability in mind. Smart technology is deeply embedded in the design to open windows and doors to keep a constant temperature.

Choosing where not to build is important too in an urban environment. It’s important to increase the amount of ‘green’ and ‘blue’ space (area dedicated to vegetation and open water) to reduce the urban heat island effect. During times of heatwaves, this can reduce the chance of heat stress and even death. Buildings absorb heat and keep it locked in during the night, meaning that urban areas don’t cool at night time. Green and blue spaces allow a city to cool at night, meaning people don’t dehydrate.

Adapting our existing building stock

So far, we’ve only talked about new building designs – but our cities are already full of buildings! It’s crucial to adapt our existing building stock alongside new developments, although action is slow. A UK government report – ‘The business case for adapting buildings to climate change’ – wrote that many business and property owners aren’t aware of the risks to the built environment and have no plans to upgrade their stock to adapt.

But there are things that you can do in your own home to take action. You’re probably already aware of solutions such as energy efficient lightbulbs, double-glazed windows and loft insulation that can make massive savings to your energy bills. In addition, the falling cost of solar panels and electric vehicles in the developed world means they may become affordable and we’ll see more of them around.

Homes in the developing world can also benefit from innovation. Air pollution is one of the biggest environmental risks to health and, according to the UN SDGs, “household air pollution from cooking with unclean fuels or inefficient technologies [leads] to an estimated 4.3 million deaths each year”. Better cooking stoves, ventilation systems and education of the risks can reduce this number drastically. In homes with thin, metal roofs, a bottle filled with bleach and water impregnated into the roof can act as a lightbulb and provide surprisingly effective lighting for a home. It works through the refraction of light and provides a sustainable alternative for improving living conditions where access to electricity remains limited.

© University of Exeter
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