OPTIMIST VIEW: Sustainable Building in a Changing Climate

“Our house is still on fire. Your inaction is fueling the flames by the hour.” – Greta Thunberg

Our house is on fire, so how do we build in the face of disaster? Climate change is both an immediate and impending crisis: Under current conditions, we’re bound for 1000-year floods and droughts every year, not to mention increasingly intense fires, heatwaves, frozen storms, and hurricanes. Climate change is a problem that should be addressed holistically, starting with the fundamentals; from the perspective of housing, it’s our very foundations that must be reimagined.

For buildings of the future to endure the stresses of increasingly extreme weather, we must reject the cookie-cutter status quo building standards we’ve grown accustomed to, and think systemically, locally, and sustainably. Applying the principles of sustainable building will pave the path for homes and workplaces that are resistant to the threat of fires, floods, and storms exacerbated by a rapidly changing climate.

What is Sustainable Building? 

Green, sustainable building involves using materials low on the “upfront carbon emission” scale and increasing efficiency (i.e. reducing ongoing carbon footprint – by lowering heat loss or cooling needs), but also by using building techniques that take all environmental and seismic impacts into account.

Experts note that the key is not building bigger or elsewhere, but building better. From a sustainable building standpoint, homes are designed from natural materials and are synergistic meaning they use (and waste) very few resources. These construction methods are also more durable and resistant to extreme weather.

Sustainable building both helps prevent the continuation of climate change and mitigates its deleterious effects.

Sustainable Building Materials 

Sustainable building materials are already competitive in the marketplace, and are oftentimes superior to outmoded traditional building materials. Adobe, or clay composite building materials, are some of the foremost examples of these.

One innovation is the use of monolithic adobe. Structures built from this composite– composed of adobe cast around steel frame– are fire and earthquake resistant, affordable, and environmentally friendly. These buildings can also be constructed with extensive greywater systems for water conservation and reduced heating and cooling costs, due to the insulating nature of adobe.

The Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Another option is rammed earth adobe. This material is a compound of clay-rich soil, water, and a natural stabilizer. This mixture is compacted inside temporary formworks that are removed after it has dried and hardened. Considering the Great Wall of China and the Alhambra in Spain were built from this compound–over a thousand years ago– it’s safe to say it can stand the test of time.

The rammed earth building style uses thick walls to help regulate temperature, but still allows for air circulation, making the homes ideal for inhabitants with respiratory issues. Rammed earth can withstand compression forces up to 40 megapascals, making it similar in strength and durability to concrete.

Santa Barbara design firm, Oasis Design, takes a page out of nature’s handbook when it comes to building with rammed earth. Its visionary, integrated systems consultant Art Ludwig designs homes from adobe compounds that are synergistic meaning they use (and waste) very few resources. In his design, harvested rainwater supplies a cistern, which supplies super-efficient fixtures with water pre-heated by the sun. The water then drains through a greywater system, which waters fruit trees that shade the house in summer, reflect sun onto the house in winter, block cold wind, and supply fruit. As described earlier, the adobe building style is also sturdy and fireproof; a key consideration for drought-ridden California.

Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT), which is wood laminated and stored with carbon, is another ingenious use of already existing materials. The composite stores about one ton of carbon per cubic meter of wood and is made by stacking multiple pieces of saw-cut carbon and laminating them. Sawdust and other materials, the only byproducts of the process, go towards making biofuel or pulp. This technique allows residents to maintain the “homey” feeling of wood construction, while resulting in a stronger building material and fewer emissions.

While, for all of these innovative materials, mass-production remains a challenge, several companies are confident they can develop 3D printing technologies capable of producing custom homes faster, with less waste, and at a lower cost than traditional home building methods. These examples are only a few of the many case studies that point towards the bright future of sustainable building materials.

Sustainable Building Strategies 

As with the materials, sustainable building strategies have already been proven as effective and economical alternatives to traditional solutions.

Bioswale

Parks and landscaping play a big role in making our living spaces more beautiful and more functional. Rain gardens, or bioswales, are an effective landscaping strategy for reducing flooding, mitigating drought, and cleaning water.

In a bioswale, vegetation is planted in a small depression on a slope and helps filter water before it reaches storm drains. Plants filter out 90 percent of chemicals and 80 percent of sediments, and soak up 30 percent more water into the landscape than traditional lawns, helping alleviate flooding and droughts. Bioswales are effective supplements to traditional drainage systems.

The University of California, Santa Barbara, Patagonia’s Ventura headquarters and the Los Angeles community of Westwood all use bioswales to improve water quality and drought resistance. The largest adopter of rain gardens is the City of Portland which is installing 83 green street planters to filter 7.1 million gallons of runoff and even offering free rain garden installation to residents. The project is part of the city’s Green Streets Resolution to reduce pollution and overhaul sewage systems.

One strategy for waterfront homeowners is to opt for concrete compounds rather than wood when it comes to materials. Beachfront houses can be constructed from concrete fortified with locally sourced sand to build resilient homes that can better withstand wind. They may also make use of strategic window cutouts to make them more aerodynamic. Features such as concrete pilings and hurricane straps, galvanized steel straps that secure the walls of a home to its rafters, can greatly increase the chances that a home withstands a historic storm. The cost of these features is high, but compared to the cost of rebuilding a home and haggling with insurance companies, the one-time investment may be well worth it.

Sustainable Building Case Studies 
A lesson from the past:

The history of Copenhagen shows us that true change and innovation can be born from the ashes of disaster. Between 1728 and 1807, the city faced three major fires that destroyed large areas of the city. The city took these crises and saw the silver lining. The 1728 fire gave way to the construction of Strøget, which today is one of the longest pedestrian-only streets in all of Europe.

Copenhagen also established the Building Commission, which went on to ban half-timber houses to further reduce the likelihood of being engulfed by flames. While rebuilding, they had the chance to add hospitals, schools, and orphanages to the city. The city also broadened streets to make room for emergency responders and stop the spread of flames.

The result? Today, houses are still incredibly fire-resistant and wider streets have made way for pedestrians and bicyclists to thrive in the metropolitan capital. It’s never too late to start investing in crucial infrastructure changes.

In the present day:
Berlin home

One innovative adoption of these values is repurposed and recycled homes. For example, a house in Berlin designed by Rundzwei Architekten uses a facade and roof made entirely out of cork recycled from the wine industry. Heating the cork fuses a natural resin that forms light durable slabs of cork which are highly insulating.

Conceptos Plasticos

In Colombia, Bogota based company, Conceptos Plasticos, is using recycled plastic to form what are essentially lego blocks that stack together to form a house. The company has built around 500 houses since 2016, at less than $300 each, making them affordable and environmentally friendly.

For the future:

Along Metropolitan Avenue in North Brooklyn, a new housing project will feature 250 units of affordable housing and 750 market-rate apartments, but it will also leave a large open space to strategically protect the community from sea level rise. The innovative design dissipates energy from large storm surges and channels rising water into a designated area. This area will serve as a series of different habitats that help support wildlife, including a salt marsh, coastal shrubs, oyster cages, eelgrass, shallows, and a freshwater wetland. The area will also support a marine center with touch tanks and swimming areas. This design offers both safety from rising waters and an enjoyable recreation area differentiated from traditional sea wall designs which are inflexible to large storms and changing ecosystems.

Common Concerns 
Cost:

Some argue that building an efficient, safe, house that is also aesthetically beautiful and meets our modern needs will prove far more expensive than smaller modifications, but design models have disproved this. Areas of France, Britain, Germany, and Austria have seen a resurgence in rammed earth architecture at lower costs than traditional building methods. Also, money saved in energy and repairs down the road makes these homes even more affordable.

Building Codes:

One obstacle standing in our way is existing building codes. Unfortunately, regulations of sustainable building options such as rammed earth do not yet exist in many areas. This is because regulations often work retroactively, not proactively. For example, plumbing codes in the US didn’t ban lead pipes for drinking water on a national scale until the 1980s, despite overwhelming evidence of disastrous health impacts mounting from the 1890s, because the lead industry had a powerful lobbying team.

Establishing building protocols and codes to make sustainable construction regulated and safe are needed to increase the adoption of these building methods and make it easier to invest in sustainable building developments. One potential regulatory sector that can lead the way is in heating and cooling. “Passivhaus” is a building standard that requires buildings to be completely insulated and sealed to a point where they do not need any central heating or cooling system. Out of the box thinking which keeps energy “in the box” is exactly the type of innovation we need to revolutionize our housing systems.

Expanding our building horizons 

The range of options for building climate-resistant homes is as vast as the potential threats a changing climate poses to our living spaces. Perhaps your biggest concern is not a fire or flood but polluted tap water or tornados. The good news is that the possibilities for innovation are endless. If you live somewhere where innovative minds are addressing climate-related events, please reach out to us. We would love to learn even more about these critical techniques and strategies.

Revolutionizing our building practices is no small task, but there is room for innovation in designs, materials, and building strategies for all environments. The benefits of sustainable building go beyond climate resilience and green building. Sustainably built homes can help address high building costs, high housing costs, homelessness, and improve community connectedness. Changing our building practices means creating homes that are better integrated into their natural environment and better suited to protect residents from climate change. Check out our View on Satisfying the Ache for Home to learn more about how sustainable building can be integrated into social wellness.

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