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Can we make climate-change proof buildings?

Can we make climate-change proof buildings?

What is Home?

Some fashionable people with fashionable opinions like to call planet Earth their “home.” The patriots among us, on the other hand, refer to their country as their “home.”

But planet Earth is, after all, just an abstraction for most of us. Except for the few astronauts who have gone into space and actually seen our planet, most of us have just seen pictures of it.

Our country is an abstraction as well — it is a map, a flag, an idea. It is something we live inside — but can’t necessarily touch.

Our real homes are the places where we live. The apartment building, the cottage, or the bungalow where we wake up, have our meals — and where we go to bed. It seems too obvious a fact to be stated out loud. But there is a good reason to highlight something this obvious — when we talk about climate change, we seem to forget about the place where we spend a major chunk of our lives: our houses. The conversation is monopolised by discussions about industry, transportation, fossil fuels? This article, then, asks questions which we don’t normally ask:

What role do residential buildings play in warming the planet?

How will our buildings be affected by climate change?

How can the construction industry build structures that will protect their residents from the extreme weather of the future?

How Buildings Contribute To Climate Change?

Buildings require energy — a lot of energy. In this age of permanently lit and air-conditioned building lobbies, it should not come as a surprise to anyone that buildings soak up a ton of energy to provide the luxuries they do. The energy used to light, heat, or cool a building releases a ton of carbon dioxide — these emissions are called operational carbon emissions.

Operational carbon emissions from buildings account for close to 30% of global carbon emissions. And that’s not it.

The process of manufacturing the construction materials, transporting them, and assembling them on-site produces a ton of carbon emissions as well. This is called the embodied carbon of a building. Currently, the embodied carbon of buildings accounts for 11% of total global carbon emissions.

When put together, the operational and embodied carbon of buildings release more CO2 in the atmosphere that either the industry or the transportation sector.

Architecture 2030 has noted that the global area covered by buildings is going to double by 2060.

The construction industry, then, is poised for a big bull run. But this is also a big challenge. The state of climate demands that all new construction be undertaken with a radical new ethos. This new ethos will need to need to put sustainability and energy-efficiency first.

As we move on, embodied carbon emissions will become proportionally equal to operational carbon emissions.

Therefore, the construction industry has to tackle both of these problems.

How Will Climate Change Affect Our Homes?

First of all, our homes will be harder to build. By design, construction is one such industry where the action has always happened — and will always happen — outdoors. With the world becoming warmer, labor productivity will dip by 14%. That’s a big dip for an industry whose annual revenue runs into trillions of dollars. Laborers and contractors will get fatigued and fall sick more often. The amount of time required to erect a run-of-the-mill steel structure will increase by 7% — one of the rare instances where humans will actually get slower at something over time.

Our current aesthetic preferences will also clash with the reality of climate change in the future. Here we are talking about the all-pervasive presence of glass in construction.

Glass happens to be by far the favorite raw material of architects worldwide. But glass is really bad at trapping heat during winter, and equally bad at releasing heat during summers. So glass-buildings fail to protect the residents from the heat in summer or from freezing winds in winter. It is perhaps telling of our narcissistic times that glass is our favorite construction material. But we need a new favorite if we are to effectively tackle climate change.

How To Make Climate Change Proof Buildings?

We can start brick-by-brick — literally. Brick walls with minimal insulation are thrice as effective at protecting the residents from the weather outside as glass walls. Brick walls with proper insultations are ten times more effective.

And who says bricks can’t be beautiful?

The World Economic Forum has written, “Cutting back on glass would be an easy win. Windows need to be sized, not glorified, and sized for a purpose: the view, or to provide natural light or air. We need to build buildings with windows, rather than buildings that are one big window.”

Secondly, the philosophy of form follows environment needs to be more widely adopted. Check out the building on the right:

Do you see the huge slant to the building? The roof slopes sharply at 19.7 degrees because that is the best angle for the solar-energy producing photo-voltaic cells on the roof. This is an example of a building that is designed to optimally exploit the environment around it. Construction firms need to think beyond simple glass skyscrapers, and embrace fresh designs, to create energy-efficient buildings.

This building is called Powerhouse Brattørkaia. It produces twice the amount of energy it uses. Not impressed yet?

Check out these two buildings. They are called Bosco Verticale. All these trees you see add up to about two acres of forest area — and all the trees are nourished with treated wastewater from the buildings themselves.

Whether we like it or not, climate change is happening all around us. And it’s not going to stop. A heavy choice looms over the construction industry: whether to stick with the status quo and become a part of the problem, or to embrace fresh designs and new technologies to become a part of the solution. We at AMs have firmly decided to side with the latter. Changing how our little, tangible houses are built may be the only way to save the future of our bigger home: Planet Earth.

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