Climate change impact on buildings

How does the environment impact our homes

09-12-2021

Many buildings are vulnerable to progressive changes in climate and extreme events. Extreme weather events are not new. However, climate change research shows that in the past decade, we have experienced an increase in extreme events with increased precipitation, thawing permafrost, frequent wildfires, prolonged droughts, severe storms, and floods (and not to mention earthquakes).

This blog post explores:

  • Climate Change Impacts - Noticeable and Latent

  • Climate Change Impact on Homes

  • Climate Change Impact on Occupants

  • Final Thoughts

  • References

 

Climate Change Impacts

Thinking of the environmental impact on our buildings, we typically envision extreme storms, wildfires, or earthquakes, which destroy properties and severely impact the lives of its occupants. 

However, the impacts of changing environmental effects on buildings can be latent. A gradual change in energy use and air quality may alter systems’ operating conditions, cause malfunctions, overload those systems, and pose severe risks to occupants’ wellbeing.

The time required to repair building damage should also be considered. Buildings that can be repaired more easily and quickly have shorter business interruptions, and are considered more resilient than comparable buildings that experience longer, more expensive repair work and business interruptions.  

Different climate zones pose different types of risks, some experience extreme events with dire outcomes, while others experience latent, long term, and less apparent outcomes, yet the wellbeing of a building's occupants are at risk. 

 

Climate Change Impact on Homes

Climate change consequences have several projected outcomes that may impact buildings. Here are just a few illustrative examples: 

  • Increased temperatures can lead to hotter building envelopes, adding to thermal stress. Cool indoor surfaces in the face of high levels of humidity lead to undesirable condensation. Changes in atmospheric conditions over time will challenge building heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC). Many buildings are designed to meet national guidance on internal temperature range merely, but significant changes in outside temperature may force these buildings to operate beyond their design conditions. A study that created several prototype buildings in different climate zones provided a view of the potential impacts of climate scenarios on structures in terms of performance, and showed that energy use would increase between five and twenty percent in most climate zones. Buildings built to current standards will still see significant increases in energy demand over the twenty-first century. Low energy buildings designed to minimize energy use will be the least affected.

  • Increased precipitation and flooding may dampen building elements and lead to mold growth or infestations. Thermal bridges or thermal discontinuities in the building envelope, especially those with vapor barriers, can cause moldy conditions and lead to material degradation, releasing chemical contaminants. When flooded, the quality of the building structure and the hydrothermal properties of the construction materials determine moisture transport into the indoor environment and building envelope. 

  • Extreme weather may strain the electrical grid, leading to an increased frequency of blackouts in buildings. The changing patterns of extreme weather events such as storms imply more rebuilding and repair work. These events may also destroy homes, particularly communities with older and poorer residents’ homes often built in risk-prone areas. 

  • Water quality is diminishing in many areas, particularly due to increasing sediment and contaminant concentrations after heavy downpours, which may increase the risk of water contamination in buildings. 

Adding resilience to a home’s design and construction can mitigate both noticeable and latent risks. Resilience can also contribute to the time and cost for a community, home, or business to get back to their everyday, routine lives. 

 

Climate Change Impact on Occupants 

The environment has an impact on our homes or any real-estate structure, therefore, we believe a truly sustainable home should be durable and resilient. However, the resilience of a structure is only one aspect. A true resilient home has to protect the lives and well-being of its occupants. 

Let’s take a look at some of the impacts the climate and environment have on us, the occupants of our homes.

Climate change has direct and indirect implications on buildings’ occupants, which will result in substantial adverse health effects and threaten the well-being of urban residents in all U.S. regions. 

The projected health effects are, to a substantial extent, a consequence of indoor exposures. For example, there is a reported association between elevated outdoor temperatures and mortality. 

  • Climate change increases the risks of respiratory stress from poor air quality, heat stress, and the spread of foodborne, insect-borne, and waterborne diseases. 

  • Loss of power during weather disasters leaves people without refrigeration, ventilation, and air conditioning. The elderly and infirm are less capable of coping during these situations, particularly those depending on refrigerated medicines. 

  • Extreme weather events often lead to fatalities and various health impacts on vulnerable populations, including effects on mental health, such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Changes in the features of buildings and building operations can reduce some adverse health effects. The Table below exhibits some of the possible impacts the selected climate change consequences may have on buildings and the health of occupants.

 

Climate Change Consequence

Impact on Buildings

Impact on Occupants 

Increase in Temperature

  • Increased summertime HVAC energy usage

  • Decreased wintertime HVAC energy usage

  • Increased HVAC tonnage to achieve comfort

  • Increased frequency of brownout and blackouts

  • Decrease summertime usage of the outdoor area

  • Decrease usage of wintertime amenities

  • Increased mortality

  • Decreased productivity

  • Infections

  • Respiratory disease transmission

  • Discomfort

  • Heat stress

  • Hospitalizations

  • Exposure to excessive heat or cold

  • Exposure to CO from backup generators

Increase in Precipitation

  • Increased energy consumption for snow production in winter

  • Increased risk of water damage 

  • Increased flooding of low-lying areas 

  • Increased risk of overload and backup of storm-water drainage systems 

  • Increased risk of water contamination 

  • Water and vector-borne diseases 

  • Dampness/mold associated symptoms or illness 

  • Physical and psychological stress from displacement during evacuations

Increase Duration and Severity of Droughts 

  • Increased dependence on irrigation systems

  • Shortage of potable water in some locations

  • Increased risk of wildfires

  • Respiratory distress and illness

Increase Frequency and Intensity of Storms

  • Increased risk of damage or degradation to building and infrastructure

  • Increased risk of flooding 

  • Increased risk of overload and backup of storm-water drainage systems

  • Increased risk of power outages

  • Exposure to chemical emissions from damaged materials

  • Physical and psychological stress from displacement during evacuations


Now that we laid out the main effects of changing weather conditions on our homes and ourselves, eampact's mission is not to focus on climate change and impacts but on solutions. Our blog provides broad information on climate change effects and solutions for protecting our homes from different climate risks, and blogs about climated change impacts and solutions on different climate zones. All of the climate change impacts and solutions we promote are also mitigation techniques for climate change. 

Final Thoughts

Climate change has accelerated the frequency and increased the magnitude of extreme weather events. Such events pose a risk to people (occupants) and homes alike. Thankfully, some strategies and solutions help adapt to these changes and better protect our properties and families. 

As with any project, an adaptive and resilient home is an outcome of research and understanding of the local climate and environmental risks, followed by proper planning, design, and execution. 

There are excellent solutions and service providers out there to help you design, build, or remodel your home and make it more sustainable, both in the sense of climate mitigation as well as more resilient to climate and environmental hazards.

From the foundation to the roof, there are both national and local vendors and suppliers of products and services that can make your home a safer and comfortable place to live. 

 

KEEP COOL. BUILD RESILIENCE. EAMPACT.

 

References:

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