Building for a changing climate

The effects of our changing climate aren't just coming anymore, they are here. How and where we build has to change as well.

Flooded community in Alberta via Calgary Sun
Flooded community in Alberta via Calgary Sun

As we have seen all around the globe lately and most recently in Alberta, extreme weather situations of all kinds are changing the baseline norms that we have come to rely on. While one single event cannot be attributed solely to climate change, the type and frequency of events we are seeing are exactly what was predicted by climate scientists and can no longer be ignored.

No meaningful action towards mitigating the effects of climate change has been taken over the last few decades, the reason being that the economy apparently couldn't handle it. Well, the economy has no choice but to handle it now. Our city infrastructure, building practices and even their locations have been determined by the weather patterns of a climate that no longer exists.

If a 'once in a century' storm now comes by a couple of times in a decade, we need to factor that in when deciding where and even how we build. Higher global temperatures means more moisture in the air, more turbulent air, and consequently more violent and unpredictable storms.

We are already paying for our inaction through tax dollars directed at disaster relief, reduced production in many industries, and increased drains on power grids and resources. Most directly perhaps, would be through home insurance rates which are creeping up to cover the added claims we are seeing. And in some cases like flooding, you aren't automatically covered.

Property values are also being affected, as homes built in low lying areas that have either seen or are at risk of seeing flooding will have significantly less appeal to a buying market that is becoming increasingly more aware of global climate issues.

Around the globe we are seeing massive infrastructure projects underway that are intended to mitigate the risk of rising water levels. The investment sacrifices we were unwilling to make a few short decades ago to prevent cliimate change, are now the types of investments we will need to make just to stay above water.

Were we to wake tomorrow to realistic climate change policies from governments, even a complete halt to human released carbon, the benefits of that would assist our children a bit perhaps, but not us. We're in for an increasingly bumpy ride no matter what we do, and they're in for even worse.

We are now hovering around the ominous 400ppm (parts per million) mark of carbon in the atmosphere, the point that climate scientists have often identified as the point of no return. Despite that grim forecast, the talk we hear is about reducing emissions to a few percentage points below a level that was already much too high. That is comically insufficient, and darkly amusing at best. We are simply handing the issue to our kids to deal with because we lack the will ourselves. 

And as we commit ourselves to emptying one of the biggest carbon lockers on the planet with pipelines across the continent, it's starting to feel a bit like the Titanic now. It could be time to grab a drink and enjoy the music since its looking like our fate is pretty well determined.

That said, there is one way you can help your kids out since elected policy makers aren't; let them inherit a house that can handle the mess we are leaving them. 

Since a home built today should be around at least many decades, it is worth anticipating the possible challenges we might have to face in an uncertain future climate. Resources are becoming increasingly more scarce and expensive, so the less you need to operate the better.

Increased durability and performance measures will add upfront costs to a building project, but they can help save on operational and maintenance costs, both of which could see dramatic increases in the future. And it only makes sense to protect your investment by building something that will last.

It is easy to believe that a brand new house that has met a provincial building code is ready to face these challenges, but that is far from the truth. Building code continues to improve performance requirements (albeit slowly) as it is being driven by innovation and market demand among other things. Ultimately though, it is a follower not a leader. As the challenges a home will face continue to increase in magnitude, we are best to factor that into our designs now. Just because building codes won't recognize that for another 30 years doesn't mean you can't.

Climate change isn't just coming anymore, it's here. Data shows that since 1980, extreme weather events around the globe have doubled. The frequency and severity of extreme events like storms, floods, droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires (not to mention damage to property and repair costs) are almost exactly double what they were just a few decades ago.

It's time to look at the reality of what is coming and build our homes based on the assets and liabilities of the future, not those of the past.

Ecohome's free building guide