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Increasing global temperatures are leaving Europe’s buildings, and their occupants, exposed
What we all felt last year is now scientifically documented: 2022 was another year of weather extremes which brought us the hottest summer on record for Europe. The scorching heatwave put a strain on millions of Europeans; and floods and wildfires brought devastation in many regions across Europe.
According to the World Health Organisation, at least 15,000 Europeans died from heat stress in 2022. And this is a conservative estimate. Temperature extremes also have a longer-term lethal effect, as they exacerbate chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.
Europe is warming faster than the global average and faster than any other continent during the past decade, the World Meteorological Organisation has confirmed.
The normal reaction of people exposed to extreme weather conditions is to retreat to their homes. But this past summer, many Europeans realised that their buildings are ill-equipped to protect them from high temperatures.
While temperatures were rising outside, buildings were also heating up, providing little relief for occupants. The development of urban heat islands, capturing the heat stored in concrete and bricks, prevented cooling down at night.
Public buildings such as schools closed and hospital appointments were cancelled as the system could not cope with the heat impacts. In the UK, media reported that sales of portable air-conditioning units rose by 2420% in a week. And data centres used by Google and Oracle had to be shut down as cooling equipment failed, leaving their customers with unreachable cloud services.
It is an uncomfortable truth: our buildings are ill-equipped to cope with extreme weather events. We need to adapt our buildings to this new reality.
LACK OF ATTENTION
However, while climate adaptation in buildings is imperative, it does not get enough attention. Not in policy design nor in academia, where the research is insufficient, and much attention is still given to mitigation.
Adaptation and mitigation are not mutually exclusive: the focus on mitigating the impacts of the construction, renovation and use of our buildings on climate change is fully justified. The sector is not decarbonising at the speed necessary, but that does not mean we should not start adapting our buildings to the impacts of climate change.
Preparing for crisis is the only response. Ensuring that our homes can provide adequate shelter in extreme weather events, which will happen more and more frequently in the near future, should start now.
This requires structural changes in terms of how we (re-)design urban spaces, how we renovate our buildings to increase their resilience and how we improve their capacity to provide healthy and safe places for occupants.
Adaptation must not be confused with buying more air conditioning units and fans. This would only increase cooling needs and thus, put a bigger strain on our pressing demands for energy.
The structural adaptation of buildings to better withstand the physical impacts of extreme weather events needs to be coupled with a people-centric approach. Thermal comfort, healthy indoor air quality, a generous supply of daylight: all need to be at the centre of technical and design measures for adaptation.
While European lawmakers are in the final stages of updating legislation to decrease the climate impact of buildings, adaptation measures should be integrated into future renovation strategies, policies and standards.
As renovation cycles often span decades, renovation measures or any structural changes to buildings should not only save energy but should also ensure that the building is providing comfort and shelter in extreme weather conditions.
In fact, smart adaptation measures will help save energy, as cooling loads in buildings will go down. Such measures include improved passive shading, natural cooling and ventilation, and green facades and roofs to support the absorption of extreme rain.
Focusing on adaptation measures in the built environment will not divert attention from mitigation efforts. Rather, adaptation and mitigation should be seen as mutually reinforcing. Stronger action to reduce our emissions now means that we will need to do less adaptation in the future.
NO TIME TO LOSE
Deeply renovating our buildings is urgent. It is urgent to reduce carbon emissions, to increase our buildings’ resilience against climate change impacts and to ensure our buildings satisfy the needs of occupants.
Beyond the individual building, it is essential that urban design increases focus on resilience. Urban resilience will have to be much more in focus in the years ahead.
As the EU Commission is finalising a technical guidance document on how to adapt buildings to climate change, policymakers finalising the Energy performance of buildings directive should require governments to turn adaptation into law to protect European citizens from the growing impacts of climate change.
It is time to face reality and accelerate our climate actions on all fronts. The time for adaptation is now. •
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