Better building and urban design are the answers, not more air conditioning, says Robbie Kerr

August 10, 2022

The role of the architect has probably never been so important and globally, as a profession, we need to embrace that challenge; we cannot ignore the lessons if we are to design responsibly in the future. The recent heatwaves and temperatures into the high 30s to low 40s in certain parts of the UK have prompted many questions about infrastructure and resilience, of national rail services cancelled, tarmac melting on runways, and our homes, offices, schools and other buildings in many cases being inadequate to give respite from high temperatures. Also, since such heatwaves will become more frequent events and, unless we can tackle and halt global warming effectively, we must plan now for how we live in the future to suit changing conditions.

Building design has to be at the forefront of change. Whilst contributing to tackling the root causes of the problem are essential, and we can do that with a holistic approach to sustainable design principles from the macro to the micro, with better application of modern climate-friendly technologies for heating and power, the materials we use, and the building process itself for example, we must also consider how we adapt design to provide us with the environment that we need for the future.

This embraces not just urban design and planning with better use and integration of green space and walkable communities, but also how we design individual homes, educational and public buildings like hospitals, and commercial properties.  Air conditioning is not the answer. Hugely damaging to the atmosphere in terms of its output it also draws heavily on power which, unless from renewable sources, is also screwing our climate change ambitions. It’s reported that the USA uses as much energy for air conditioning in a year as the UK uses in total.

We need to look at other countries with higher temperatures - particularly our Mediterranean neighbours – and learn from them.  Whether it is use of external shutters that keep heat out in summer and prevent heat loss in winter, thicker walls, or the careful use of windows and glazing to enhance the quality of spaces we design. There are other measures that we know work like roof colour to limit heat absorption, shading from trees in summer, and air flow. If we look back to some of our own vernacular architecture we can see that, in many ways, our buildings then were better designed to cope.  We can learn from traditions and vernacular design - we don't need high tech solutions, just an understanding of the basics!

Retrofit rather than demolition/rebuild is another example of how and where we should be focusing to cut emissions. At every step we should interrogate our proposals as to their impact on the climate emergency.

We strongly believe that architects must be at the forefront of change. According to the World Green Building Council building and construction are responsible for around 39% of all global carbon emissions. That is one huge burden and a significant responsibility to achieve net zero emissions across the sector by 2050.  It is up to those who are designing buildings, at the forefront of new urban design and specifying materials to take the lead.