Adapting to climate uncertainty: designing cooler buildings

Published: September 27, 2022
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Adapting To Climate Uncertainty Designing Cooler Buildings E1664273823500

This year may well be remembered for its extreme weather, and with the climate crisis, it’s only going to get more unpredictable. While a handful of heat lovers basked in the scorching temperatures, many people in Britain suffered in poorly ventilated homes, stuffy offices and exposed public spaces.

Whenever temperatures soar, people ask why the UK struggles so much with weather that many parts of the world live with every day. The answer is that we’re not built for it. Our infrastructure was designed for moderate temperatures, drizzly weather and a handful of hot days throughout the summer. While many UK houses may not be prepared for high temperatures, they may not be prepared for extremely cold conditions either. However, many solutions, such as high thermal mass, high insulation levels and well designed insulation, that help retain heat, also help keep a building cool. Thermally efficient buildings are more affordable and environmentally friendly to keep at comfortable temperatures.

In the UK, many houses, in particular, are designed to retain heat and many buildings don’t have air conditioning. So, what can we learn from the architecture in hotter countries?

Keep it low

To make the best use of space, we tend to build up, but as many of us have discovered, that leads to stuffy upper floors – not ideal when our bedrooms are usually upstairs. Low-lying buildings like bungalows, however, are better at keeping cool.

Ground-source heat pumps that rely on phase change of refrigerating fluid, are an excellent choice due to their efficiency. Windows that open at a high level will also let hot air out, while chimneys with wind cowls will help to draw hot air up and away from the building.

Swap concrete for hempcrete

Concrete is great at storing heat or keeping the ground cool, but producing it requires a lot of energy and causes high CO2 emissions. Hempcrete is a mix of hemp shiv and a lime binder. It provides the same thermal mass as concrete without the massive carbon footprint. It’s also great at controlling humidity.

If it’s not suitable for your design, consider stone, rammed earth or unfired bricks for other low-carbon materials with a high thermal mass.

Rethink your roof

There are a number of ways to redesign roofs to keep buildings cooler. Traditionally, our roofs are peaked and dark to absorb heat. A simple swap is to use a light-coloured material to reflect heat.

Flatter, overhanging roofs will provide more shade during the hottest part of the day while also offering the opportunity to use a bio-based insulation. It may take a while to catch on, but living, green roofs are great for insulation and biodiversity.

Changing habits

The way we use homes has changed in recent years. During the pandemic, many people struggled to find a quiet space to work, especially if they had children at home. In the future, we may need to think of rooms as flexible spaces that can be adapted depending on needs.

This might even include being able to move around to avoid the direct sunlight at the hottest part of the day, or to move into it during cooler, winter months. Shutters and awnings look great and give residents more flexibility when it comes to how they use the space. Again, where once we prioritised blackout blinds to give us a cosy sleeping environment, light-coloured blinds that let the light in mean people don’t need to use electricity to light the room and deflect the harshest of the sun’s rays. This may be the way to go in the future.

Finally, surrounding houses with gardens is great for our mental health, but planting trees will provide shade, keep the ground cooler and absorb more carbon from the atmosphere.

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