Architects, builders are urged to be both ‘optimists’ and “realists’ when designing for climate change.
There’s little question many architects and builders are convinced of the threat of climate change and are urging clients to plan for a future of weather extremes.
Those who design and construct buildings are required to look decades into the future and are expected to provide owners with their best advice on how and where they should proceed with their projects. Those considerations can include everything from what kind of materials to use that can best withstand more frequent downpours to whether to build in an area that might become a flood plain in a future with rising sea levels.
But architects and builders who are among the believers the world is inexorably warming due to human activity frequently face skeptical clients who not only question the science but the added costs that adopting their plans can bring.
According to the Ipsos Mori Global Trends 2014 survey released last month, the United States is by far the most climate-skeptical nation in the world, with only 52 percent agreeing that climate change is the result of human activity. Some 32 percent disagreed and 14 percent responded they didn’t know in the poll, which questioned 16,000 people in 20 countries between September and October.
With that level of skepticism, it’s no easy task for young professionals like Ariane Laxo, a certified interior designer with HGA Architects & Engineers in Minneapolis and active member of the U.S. Green Building Council, to win over some clients who may be resistant to the notion of constructing a more expensive building with a warmer and riskier long-term weather future in mind.
Laxo, who is the past chairwoman of the USGBC’s Emerging Professionals National Committee as well as its representative to the USGBC national committee, says she has returned from a training session in South Africa with former Vice President Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project with a message that builders need to be advocates for “resilient” buildings, for their own professional sake as well as that of the world.
Speaking to a meeting of the Minnesota USGBC chapter this week in Minneapolis, Laxo said the latest science shows continued rising global temperatures, rising sea levels and more frequent extreme weather events.
“If we continue along this path, we will probably share the fate of the people of Easter Island (whose isolated inhabitants committed ‘ecocide’ by destroying their island’s tree cover),” she said. “What I’m proposing, and what the Climate Reality Project is proposing, [is] that we need to be both optimists and realists. We need to be realists because climate change is happening right now. We’re seeing these intense weather events, and we need to prepare clients for it.
“But we do have the solutions at hand. They’re available, and we just need to use them,” she added, suggesting that architects and designers honestly confront the climate skepticism of some clients, especially since those “solutions” directly address the source of 44.6 percent of all U.S. carbon emissions — commercial buildings.
Laxo asserted that building professionals have a moral and ethical — and in the future, maybe even legal — responsibility to prepare clients for the effects of climate change, including intense storms, future water shortages, rising sea levels, more frequent wildfires and power interruptions. Among the ways architects and engineers should be helping, she said, includes honestly modeling for higher future temperatures and their effect on energy bills for cooling.
“This is a place where we should really be telling our clients, ‘Here’s what the building code requires, and here’s the past historic data on energy costs … but here’s what we see coming down the pipeline,’” she said. “’There might not be a right answer on how we plan for that, but I’m going to tell you as your advocate to prepare for this.’
“It’s our responsibility to do that partly because 10 years down the road when our clients see way higher cooling loads than they expected, they might come after us and say, ‘You should have warned us.’’’
Don Jacobson is a freelance writer in St. Paul and former editor of the Minnesota Real Estate Journal.