How Changing Weather Affects the Built Environment
I have been writing a lot lately about climate change and weather patterns. If it’s not yet abundantly clear, my rationale stems from the fact that, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 2011 and 2012 were the two most extreme years on record for destructive weather events, resulting in more than $170 billion in damages. Weather has a major impact on the built environment, and restoration after an extreme weather event costs approximately fourteen times more than prevention.
To fully understand where and how we should build in response to our changing climate, it’s of paramount importance that building professionals study the weather. Enter Stu Ostro, Senior Meteorologist and Director of Weather Communications at The Weather Channel.
Stu shared his story with us during a riveting and provocative session at our recent thought leadership summit. In 2007, after decades of denying a link between climate change and intensified weather patterns, the former self-proclaimed hard-core climate skeptic had a moment of enlightenment. A student of weather since he was eight years old, Stu came to the abrupt realization that he could no longer refute his own science, which clearly indicated that human activity has exacerbated climate change and global warming has irreparably changed the weather.
Stu showed us chart after chart that illustrated trends in warming temperatures, increased frequency of heavy precipitation, and rising sea levels. He also made a direct connection between changing weather patterns and the need for a transformed approach to our built environment.
As temperatures become more extreme, our structures will demand greater heating and cooling loads. “The most direct consequence of a planet getting hotter is … increased heat,” said Stu. “So, building with efficiency in mind seems to clearly be a desirable goal.”
Greater energy demand will inevitably strain our antiquated grid infrastructure and lead to a vicious cycle of increased fossil fuel use and carbon emissions—unless, that is, we begin incorporating decentralized, renewable energy systems into our structures.
Additionally, Stu reminds us that “there have been quite a few particularly massive power outage events lately: the ice storm a few years ago in Kentucky, Arkansas, and thereabouts; “Snowtober” in the Northeast; Sandy, from both wind and heavy wet October snow; and hurricanes which were large in size such as Ike and Irene. Perhaps thought should be given to the need for more backup home power supplies, especially in heavily treed areas?”
Water—too much and too little—will become an increasingly urgent and crucial issue. Rising sea levels and a clear pattern of increased floods and droughts throughout the country should be used to inform decisions about where we locate homes, offices, and communities. Stu advises against building anywhere below 30 feet in elevation. He also suggests that we reconsider building near waterways that have even a remote possibility of flooding, particularly since record floods are occurring with greater frequency and intensity. “The terms ‘100-year’ and ‘500-year’ flood are misunderstood, and floodplain maps for average return frequencies will need to be redrawn.”
It’s no surprise that our water supply will become increasingly more challenged, so we should expect to see augmented demand and regulation around products like water efficient appliances, low flow fixtures, whole-home filters, and harvesting systems.
Raging wildfires will continue to proliferate across the country, which will increase demand for flame and heat resistant building products. And, a word of advice from Stu’s credence to those in the industry who have been rallying against incorporating sprinklers into residential building code—save your time and energy. You might as well give up the fight now, since codes that so directly protect the lives of homeowners are as inescapable as the fires themselves.
As our atmosphere becomes wetter, we can expect to see changes not just in the air above us but also in the ground beneath us. Increased precipitation will cause landslides, cracks, heaves, sinkholes, and, in northern climes, thawing permafrost. These events will inexorably affect the integrity of the built environment.
While Stu’s presentation was eye-opening if not downright disturbing, the thrust of his message focused on encouraging us to assess the risks associated with changing weather patterns and make informed decisions accordingly. Stu understands that our approach to the built environment needs to transform if we’re going to prepare ourselves for the rocky road ahead, and he doesn’t hesitate to remind us that, in the past, rapid shifts in climate have contributed to the demise of unprepared civilizations.
Sara is the Co-Founder and CEO of Green Builder Media. An experienced entrepreneur, investor, and sustainability consultant, Sara specializes in developing companies that are simultaneously sustainable and profitable. Sara is a former venture capitalist and has participated in a portion of the life cycle (from funding to exit) of over 20 companies. Sara graduated Cum Laude from Dartmouth College and holds an MBA in entrepreneurship and finance from the University of Colorado. This article was reprinted with permission from Green Builder Media.
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