How to tackle climate adaptation in our homes and buildings

Andrew Mather is director of Ramboll

Climate science has been saying it for a while, but the UK is now starting to experience more of the extreme weather that will, sadly, only become more prevalent. As we continue to break new record temperatures, we need to face up to the reality that our homes and buildings need to be better-equipped to mitigate sweltering temperatures.

Despite the fact that temperatures have been rising for a number of years, overheating has only just begun to be considered in our building regulations (Approved Document O). Investors haven’t been driving change either, with climate change adaptation risks seemingly not of significance for their typical hold periods and not returning higher yields.

To make our homes bearable in extreme heat, we need practical changes in our homes and these start with change in the market. We need to create a business case for change using both the bottom-up instrument of regulation and the top-down of economic investment, and for this to be for both new-builds and retrofitting existing homes.

Simply accepting the status quo and letting market forces naturally shape the future will not lead to a national housing stock ready for an adapted climate, especially for homes in low income or even medium income areas.

The fact is the majority of homeowners cannot afford the necessary upgrades to climate-proof their homes. It is not a ‘just transition’ where only prime residential properties can afford to change. We need to consider broader change and building in the first step of new-build regulation.

The issue of double materiality

When thinking about market changes, a current hot topic in sustainability reporting is the concept of single materiality versus double materiality. Single materiality covers what impacts are important to the company, while double materiality includes the return aspect of what effects the company has on the environment and society.

“Adopting holistic solutions that consider the societal impact and seek broader social value creation should be the priority”

Frameworks such as the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) have led to the positive change of climate-related impacts on a company being increasingly seen as material, and are therefore covered in standard, single materiality reporting. However, the impact of companies on the planet is only covered if double materiality is required.

In the context of housing, this thinking goes beyond just the material impact on a building user, developer or owner, but also what impacts they have.

For example, if a row of terraced houses were being redeveloped, it might be that installing air-conditioning is the most commercially attractive option for mitigating extreme heat and ensuring residents’ comfort. However, what impact will that have on the homes and area to which all the hot exhaust air from the air-conditioners is directed?

Quick fixes such as bolting on air-conditioning units are not a ‘just transition’, particularly since they can cause even greater overheating in the surrounding area. Adopting holistic solutions that consider the societal impact and seek broader social value creation should therefore be the priority when mitigating extreme weather.

Key learnings for the building sector

In order for the UK to adapt its buildings to hotter weather, there are a number of learnings we can take, both from nature and other countries.

Green infrastructure, such as parks and local ecosystems, can play a key role in helping to cool urban environments during a heatwave. Similarly, introducing more vegetation in local communities can help to reduce the effects of overheating.

Furthermore, the UK could benefit from implementing tried and tested heat-mitigation techniques from southern European countries – including planning techniques such as building orientation, reducing glass on south-facing facades, prioritising passive ventilation design, and incorporating building features such as exterior shading, light-coloured exterior surfaces and green facades.

These changes can be incorporated relatively easily into UK housing design, and often carry the co-benefits of mitigating other climate risks, reducing energy fuel costs and increasing the wellbeing of residents.

The key challenge is overcoming any capital expenditure uplift – something that is much lower for new-builds than retrofit solutions. However, there are significant operational expenditure benefits and these will influence property value.

The way forward

The world is changing more rapidly than many expect, but we are often struggling to implement solutions that are technically within our reach. What are the keys to unlocking action now?

Firstly, strong policy is urgently needed to build upon the latest building regulations and mandate climate adaptation in our building stock. This should include existing homes, as well as new-builds, and raising minimum standards to implement the climate readiness all our homes need.

The Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards (MEES) should be expanded into the Minimum Climate Adaptation Standards, including a rating for heat mitigation and other climate hazards. This would bring the joined-up thinking in planning, design and operation that we urgently need.

“Nature-based solutions and other options are far more beneficial overall”

Secondly, we need a nationwide government programme with financial backing to improve our housing stock. This should incentivise homeowners and landlords to build resilience into their homes, such as Italy’s scheme where homeowners are given a tax break equivalent to 110 per cent to undertake improvements to reduce climate risk.

The government spend will create significant benefits for occupiers, as well as improving our energy security, reducing carbon emissions, reducing fuel bills and, ultimately, reducing pressure on our health services in extreme temperatures.

Finally, better communication of climate adaptation throughout the industry and among the public is needed, along with an understanding that a hierarchy of measures should be followed that incorporates double materiality concerns.

Investors and homeowners should be aware that nature-based solutions and other options are far more beneficial overall than just jumping straight to air-conditioning without knowledge or concern for its impact on others.

Our climate is changing, and having an impact on our homes and lives. While we have many of the solutions we need to adapt, we desperately need bold policies to influence the housing market and integrated design learning from nature.

If we don’t get the message this summer, we will surely be given reminders in future years.

Leave a comment