Throwing Shade at How Buildings Must Adapt to the Climate Crisis

It's getting hot out there. What do we have to do to make buildings resilient?

exterior shades on building in Germany

MXW Stock / Getty Images

Should our building and urban planning designs change in response to a changing climate? The answer should be an overwhelming yes. And yet, the North American AEC [architectural, engineering, and construction] industry as a whole has seen almost no change from business-as-usual development. One might think we are not in the midst of a rapidly worsening climate crisis.

Take something as basic as shade.

In Germany, virtually every project I worked on (and every place I lived) had active solar protection—operable external shading devices to eliminate solar gains and keep places cooler in summer and shoulder seasons. There were a plethora of options for designers to choose from and from a number of different manufacturers. Vienna, Austria, offers sizable subsidies for the installation of active solar protection and not just for homeowners, but renters as well. The fund is available through 2025. This is what climate leadership looks like.

Unfortunately, there is effectively no active solar protection industry in North America. Power outages will increase in the future, especially during heat waves. How will building occupants keep cool when they cannot even keep the sun out of their buildings? How effective is smart/electrochromic glass at reducing solar heat gains when there is no power? Operable external solar protection offers a level of climate adaptiveness that planners and policymakers need to be thinking about in a warming world.

The IPCC Working Group III’s report on climate mitigation stated that weak energy codes were a form of carbon lock-in. Despite this, zero jurisdictions in North America have mandated Passivhaus, and planners continue to overwhelmingly design buildings that could not be built in the European Union due to poor performance.

Are planning teams evaluating how warmer temperatures will affect their energy modeling assumptions? Are they designing for increased overheating? Simply oversizing heat pumps or planning on A/C reliance to prevent overheating isn't a tenable strategy, especially where power outages will likely become more commonplace due to weather. How do we deal with inequitable access to cooling?

Climate adaptation is not limited to issues around heat, as we saw with the cold snap in Texas. Code minimum buildings—even in jurisdictions with the most progressive energy codes—are not resilient to power outages during cold snaps. We should be aiming higher.

Wildfire smoke is an ever-increasing challenge with climate change, especially as forests dry out. Building ventilation that cannot pre-filter particulates will leave occupants at risk of breathing dangerous air—even indoors. The airtightness and continuous fresh, filtered ventilation of Passivhaus can play an active role in protecting residents against smoke. It also works against air pollution. Should trickle vents be illegal? Should institutions and cities be planning for fresh air centers? I believe they must.

When it comes to passive survivability and climate adaptation, Passivhaus buildings are much better situated than code minimum buildings. They provide a higher level of protection against heat, the cold, energy spikes, and wildfire smoke events. They also make future mechanical retrofits much less expensive, with lower carbon footprints due to efficiency gains over time. That it is possible to achieve Passivhaus for little to no additional cost when planned accordingly—makes it an obvious choice for future-proofing buildings. For all of these reasons and more, I am strongly of the belief that Passivhaus must be the minimum standard new construction is designed to.

Cities Will Need to Change ... Drastically

Courtyard in Vienna
A courtyard in Vienna, Austria.

Lloyd Alter

How we plan cities and neighborhoods has a massive role in mitigating climate change. Land use codes that pack in high floor area ratios and lot coverage for low and midrise heights have resulted in the proliferation of thick, double-loaded corridor buildings. Surprisingly, these are rare in the rest of the world. This also means the majority of new multifamily developments in North America cannot cross-ventilate—a needed respite from the heat that will continue to get deadlier. Last year's heat dome that hit the Pacific Northwest resulted in the deaths of over 620 residents in British Columbia, Canada, and nearly all of them were people indoors.

Overly complex planning requirements for façade modulation and undulations lead to more expensive buildings, more thermal bridging, more durability issues, more operating costs, more heat loss, more embodied carbon, and more operational carbon. Simplicity is climate action!

When will jurisdictions mandate thinner buildings that are more climate adaptive, with point access blocks, or single-loaded corridor configurations that allow cross ventilation and daylight autonomy? Similarly, when will the construction financing and insurance industries become concerned about climate-induced comfort and safety issues?

On a larger scale, politicians and planning departments that mandate car-centricity (hello, parking minimums) or prevent eco-districts with ample open space and tree canopy to reduce the urban heat island effect, are not only ensuring carbon lock-in but also that that new development is unable to adapt to a changing climate the way it should.

Rain inundation and flooding are other areas of concern. Incredible deluges around the world have resulted in catastrophic floods—even our old home in Bayern has been affected. The role of planners can be critical here: Do current land use codes incentivize, or do they deter, basement suites susceptible to flooding? What design teams are planning to even accommodate rising waters and floods, as French architect Eric Daniel-Lacombe has?

These issues will necessitate massive transformations in our planning processes, our land use codes, and street configurations. This will necessitate things like deprioritizing private cars for sustainable and resilient modes of transportation. It includes unsealing streets for blue-green infrastructure.

There is no region in North America taking this on at the pace and scale needed.

What About Social Resilience?

R50 Baugruppen in Berlin
R-50 Baugruppen in Berlin.

Lloyd Alter

So much multifamily development in North America consists of studios or 1-bedroom units. This lack of unit diversity also results in poor economic and social diversity. It need not be this way. Development in the E.U. tends to have a much better mix of unit types and sizes. Funding for social housing is also paramount—and it is no accident that social housing providers are pushing the boundaries of innovation with new construction and retrofits.

The IPCC Working Group III report also highlighted how community-led housing, such as cohousing and Baugruppen ("building groups" in German), can help mitigate many issues—not just around climate, but resource consumption and the loneliness crisis. Amenity spaces and the solidarity of communal living help make compact, low-carbon living possible.

There are patterns and templates we could and should be using to meet this challenge head-on. Planners can prioritize and incentivize climate adaptation and mitigation to a much greater degree than they currently have. Jurisdictions need to look at how they can radically and drastically adjust their policies and codes to meet these challenges. Funding allocation also plays an oversized role in expediting or delaying these issues.

All of these issues are intermingled to a great extent. In addition to this for most cities: growing housing crises. How we unravel this tattered and unusable sweater and restitch it for more adaptive and resilient communities is one of the greatest challenges we will face. However, it is a challenge I believe we can meet. This is exactly why I launched Larch Lab last year to focus on design, planning, and policy around the development of sustainable and climate adaptive buildings and districts with a high quality of life.