News analysis: Adaptation is not as sexy as prevention but defra's new website is an early sign that it is going to be just as important

Much time and sweat has gone into the science of climate change prevention. As one of its chief architects, the building industry has also been at the forefront of efforts to ameliorate the effects. But much less time has been spent on constructing homes and commercial properties which plan for the hotter more unpredictable future which most experts agree is coming anyway.

Increased flooding; hotter, dryer summers; loss of biodiversity; and risk to human health are the hallmarks of the scaremonger’s case for a behavioural change today. But at its most prosaic level, we are looking at a future in 70 or 80 years from now when summers are going to prove an expensive and uncomfortable time to sit around on sofas on a Sunday afternoon watching England battle to prevent a fourth day innings defeat against Australia in the Ashes.

Thames Gateway: a model project
Planner for the Thames Gateway will have to build homes and offices which take account of climate change

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (defra) has recognised this and called for private and public institutions to think creatively about adaptation. It has introduced a website containing the latest information on how climate is expected to alter, links to practical tools for adaptation, and examples of what is already being done around the country.

Climate change minister, Joan Ruddock said the industry needed to think clearly about future proofing buildings. And it has begun to listen. At November’s Thames Gateway Forum, a talking shop revolved around the vast regeneration project set for development in and around the Thames estuary, the industry will debate climate change and its effect on the building industry in a series of seminars.

“We’ll need good design that works with the environment rather than against it,” says Ruddock, “creating buildings which stay cool in the heat and deal with water that will be in short supply in summer and pouring into the drains during heavy storms. This one stop shop will help people identify the challenges we will face in the future and to make the decisions now that will help us to manage them.”

Summers are going to prove an expensive and uncomfortable time to sit around on sofas on a Sunday afternoon watching England battle to prevent a fourth day innings defeat against Australia in the Ashes.

But Chris Twin, Arup director says the industry’s fledgling interest and the government’s website are no more than “a first tentative step.” He believes that government and the building industry have been woefully slow to understand the need to plan for adaptation. “Even if the technologies and techniques are not used today, they need to be in place for when it becomes an issue in 30 or 40 years time.”

An example is the Bedzed development in Sutton, South London where residents complained that the unshaded sunspace made their living rooms too hot. But that, says Twinn, was because they were using the sunspace incorrectly.

He says: “The whole idea of a sunspace is to close it during the day when you are out and keep your inner room ventilated. Then you open it up in the morning and the evening to cool it off.”

The misunderstanding is not an issue for Twinn who says it will take a generation or two before people in the UK adapt to living in a warmer climate. The important thing is that the technology and engineering is there to cope once people are forced to start behaving like southern Europeans.

Adapting to a Mediterranean-style climate means binning many of the rules of thumb which architects use to maximise today’s temperate north Atlantic climate. Improved insulation and warmer winter temperatures means homes and offices can retain warmth without needing to trap heat from low winter sun with large south facing windows. The corollary is smaller north facing windows which help to prevent overheating in the summer.

Government and the building industry have been woefully slow to understand the need to plan for adaptation

The key is to make sure buildings are designed to remain cool without air conditioning until the case for artificial cooling becomes overwhelming in about 70 years, by which time solar powered cooling will be effective enough to provide the one or two degrees C heat reduction which will be required.

But for Twinn, the challenge for architects and engineers goes beyond just homes and offices and out on to the streets. Roads, he says, should be made narrower and either tree lined or shielded with buildings like medieval Mediterranean alleyways to prevent the sun beating down on them all day long. The alternative is empty streets in the daytime.

And as cataclysmic as this prediction might seem to a country whose inhabitants strip down and break out the suntan oil as soon as the temperature sneaks over 16 degrees C, architects and engineers are not equipped to manage the change alone. Twinn reckons that for a built environment equipped for the coming challenges, government needs to require the industry to think as clearly about adaptation as it already does about prevention.

The alternative is the country sweating as heavily in summer as the average English batsman.

Critical Figures

Average UK annual temperatures may rise by 2 to 3.5 degrees C by the 2080s

Offshore waters in the English Channel may be up to 4.5 degrees C warmer by the 2080s

Annual average rainfall across the UK may decrease slightly, by between 0-15% by the 2080s

Snowfall amounts may decrease significantly throughout the UK

Extreme weather events are likely to become more common

Environment agency project: Thames Estuary 2100

The Thames estuary 2100 is an environment agency project to develop a tidal flood risk management plan for the Thames Estuary though to the end of the century.
Using the latest climate change scenarios and models, and taking account of future sea level rise, the final plan will recommend what flood risk management measures will be required in the Estuary, where they will be needed and when over the coming century.
The final plan will also be flexible to ensure that it can be adaptable to sea levels rising faster, or storm surges become more intense than anticipated.

Planners adapting: Vale Street

The London and Quadrant Housing Trust has announced the first homes in London to be delivered to Level 4 of the Code for Sustainable Homes.
Vale Street is an urban residential scheme that has selected building materials and used construction methods that mean the homes will retain warmth in the winter and yet remain cool in the summer.
The scheme aims to reduce the energy demand of homes through mechanical heat recovery and super insulating the building fabric.
Measures include utilising green roofs which benefit biodiversity and keep buildings cooler; and the buildings are orientated towards the open aspects of the site, reflecting the need for solar shading and passive solar heating.

Education adapting: Charter School

In 1999 architect Penoyre and Prasad were asked to refurbish the buildings of the Charter School in London. The firm noticed that the main block had one long expanse facing south west, getting the sun all day long, and one faced north east, and got none at all.
The sides were treated in the same way - this meant the students could be cold on one side and warm on the other.
The architect took off the single-glazing around the whole building and put a modern cladding of glass, ventilation louvers and aluminium panels. In the entrance all, there are now clear pipes running down from the rainwater harvesting system on the roof, so the children can see how much water they have collected that week.