Climate change means we can't keep living and working in glass houses

London’s famous Shard is one big window, but bricks and wood are more efficient. Image: Bill Smith, CC BY.

How do we go about designing buildings today for tomorrow’s weather? As the world warms and extreme weather becomes more common, sustainable architecture is likely to mean one major casualty: glass.

For decades glass has been everywhere, even in so-called “modern” or “sustainable” architecture such as London’s Gherkin. But in energy terms glass is extremely inefficient: it does little but leak heat on cold winter nights, and turn buildings into greenhouses on summer days.

The U-value, a measure of how much heat is lost through a given thickness, of triple glazing is around 1.0. However a simple cavity brick wall with a little bit of insulation in it is 0.35 – that is, three times lower; while a well-insulated wall will have a U-value of just 0.1. So each metre square of glass, even if it is triple glazed, loses ten times as much heat as a wall.

While the climate is changing, so too is the weather. Climate is expressed in terms of long-term averages, whereas the weather is an expression of short-term events – and the weather is predicted to change by much more than our climate.

This creates challenges. A 0.5℃ increase in monthly temperature can make a difference to farmers, or the energy used by an air-conditioning system; but a peak temperature of 38℃ or a vicious cold snap can be far more serious. Buildings are designed to handle extremes, not just averages.

Architects and building engineers around the world are now having to struggle with this issue, especially since buildings last so long. At Bath we have recently been awarded a grant to look at long-term weather forecasting and how building design will have to change. After all, you can’t move buildings to somewhere with a better climate.

One obvious possibility, for UK designers at least, is that they pick a place where the weather currently is similar to what the Met Office suggests the UK will have in 2100, and simply put up buildings like the ones they have there.

The problem with this approach is that it ignores the low-carbon agenda. Many hot countries have spent the past 30 years designing buildings similar to those found in more temperate countries, while leaving enough space for monster air-conditioning systems. The air-conditioned skyscrapers in Las Vegas and Dubai, for instance, look just like buildings you might see in London or Boston, despite being built in the middle of a desert.

Las Vegas’s glass boxes couldn’t exist without air conditioning. Image: Bert Kauffman, CC BY.

As an experiment, type “Dubai Buildings” into Google images and take a look at what has been built and, more worryingly, artist’s impressions of what is on the drawing board. You can even see this inefficiency in cultures that one might expect more of – for example, in the famous energy-guzzling glass towers of Vancouver.

Buildings will have to be simplified. Heating, lighting, energy supply, air con, escalators, IT networks and so on – all these “building services” will have to be stripped right back. Those services which do remain must use almost no energy – and possibly generate the energy they require on site.

Cutting back on glass would be an easy win. Windows need to be sized, not glorified, and sized for a purpose: for the view, or to provide natural light or air. Windows also need to be shaded. Many would argue that we need to re-invent the window. We need to build buildings with windows, rather than buildings that are one big window.

Maybe we should look to the Mediterranean. People have mainly lived in countries such as Greece, for example, without air-conditioning – and it is true that such heavyweight, thick-walled buildings with small openings are capable of moderating external conditions very well.

Small windows and thick, white walls keep the inside of this traditional Greek house nice and cool. Image: ncfc0721, CC BY.

However these places don’t offer the climate control we are used to, especially if you pack them with people and computers. The people of the Mediterranean also had generations to adapt themselves and their working arrangements to fit with the climate. We don’t have this luxury: the weather is changing too fast.

We have yet to invent architecture ready for whatever happens to the climate, but it is clear that we need to take lessons from the past – and from other cultures. We can’t simply air-condition our way through global warming. The Conversation

David Coley is Professor of Low Carbon Design at University of Bath.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.