Future shock: Designing climate-resilient buildings

Biltmore Village during the 2004 flood. Photo courtesy of FEMA

An upcoming conference gives Asheville a lead role in efforts to integrate the latest climate science into the hands-on practices of architects, builders and others.

“Climate Resilient Design in the Southeast,” happening Friday, Nov. 6, at the U.S. Cellular Center, brings together an impressive array of acclaimed scientists and other professionals. They’ll discuss climate-resilient building methods in relation to extreme weather events and other aspects of climate change.

Buildings last a long time, and things like increased rainfall, higher average temperatures and sea level rise can dramatically affect the conditions a given structure will have to deal with over time.

“Really heavy precipitation events are increasing, and that means communities are going to have additional problems with stormwater drainage and things that architects, as they’re building, can take into consideration — different ways you can design an area that has more or less runoff,” says Thomas Peterson, a keynote speaker at the conference and a lead author of the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Underscoring the event’s timeliness is Executive Order 13693, titled “Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade.” Issued by President Barack Obama in March, it requires building projects involving federal approval or federal funds to factor climate science into their design, in both new construction and retrofitting old buildings. An architect designing a building in a flood plain, for example, will now have to consider not just where the flood plain is today but where it will be in the future, explains Marjorie McGuirk, an environmental consultant who spent 25 years at the Asheville-based National Climatic Data Center (now the National Centers for Environmental Information), an arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The conference is co-hosted by the local chapter of The American Institute of Architects and The Collider, an Asheville nonprofit that seeks to merge science and business to address environmental and climate challenges.

“There’s really a whole lot of high-caliber climate scientists in this area,” notes James Stafford, president of AIA Asheville. “We want to build the seminar into an annual event where people in the building, design and construction industries can come to Asheville each year and hear the latest news and best practices about design and building for climate consciousness.”

A critical mass of experts

The daylong seminar will offer six continuing education credits for architects, who must complete 12 credits annually in order to maintain their N.C. license.

“We’re going to develop this type of programming and provide it to all types of business and industry professionals,” says Marilyn McDonald, executive director and chief operations officer of The Collider. “We really want to focus on issues dealing with the environment and the impact the climate has on it, especially in the areas of adaptation and resilience, because with climate change and extreme weather, that’s what we have to deal with now.” McDonald spent 14 years at A-B Tech, most recently as executive director of the Educational and Entrepreneurial Development Foundation.

“Having an event such as this one here in Asheville allows you to leverage Asheville’s climate enterprise, which includes NOAA but also the expertise that The Collider is collecting,” says Glenn Kerr, executive director of the American Association of State Climatologists. “You have a critical mass of subject-matter experts that reside in this area and are co-located with the actual climate data and the people that build the products and services.” Kerr previously worked as a climatologist for both the Air Force and the Defense Department.

Other conference presenters include Kenneth Kunkel of the Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites as well as eco-savvy architects like Stafford and Nathan Bryant of Samsel Architects. Former Asheville Planning Director Scott Shuford, who’s now Fayetteville’s director of development services, will provide a city planning perspective. And former Asheville City Council member Robin Cape, who helped found and develop The Collider, has considerable experience in reducing carbon emissions, building renovation and alternative energy.

Peterson’s presentation will focus on the science of attributing extreme weather events to climate change, which he stresses must be understood in terms of probabilities. “Extreme cold events are decreasing, but only moderately, while extreme warm events are increasing dramatically,” he notes. “This asymmetry has implications for designing a building: how much insulation to put in and what kind of heating and cooling, to make sure you’re adapting not only to the climate you have now but the climate the building is going to be experiencing” later in its life span.

If you build it…

Stafford of AIA Asheville says he enjoys helping clients understand the practical value of these seemingly arcane considerations.

“I like to get clients excited about really committing to doing a project that’s going to have a financial benefit over time,” he explains. Tax rebates for green construction, notes Stafford, are available for both home and business owners, though these may fluctuate from year to year.“By using less, there’s also a lot less carbon impact for the home, both in operational efficiency and during construction. A lot of the materials used in green homes — locally sourced, reused or repurposed — have, inherently, a lot lower carbon impact than something from halfway across the country that’s all newly sourced raw materials.”

And McGuirk, whose consulting firm has provided services to such high-profile clients as the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva and The Rockefeller Foundation, stresses the importance of getting more architects on board with climate science. In Florida, she points out, more than two-thirds of NASA’s structures sit within a flood plain. “We had a very well-received program about a year ago that was for just the local section of the AIA. There are lots of conferences, but what we’re uniquely doing is infusing the climate science into their profession, enabling them to take on the mantle of climate practitioners.” Architects unfamiliar with environmental and climate-sensitive design methods, she adds, won’t be able to compete for grants and projects needing federal approval.

Recognizing this, says McGuirk, “The leadership of AIA Asheville went to their national headquarters and said, ‘Can we use climate learning to meet our requirements for our architectural certificate?’ and they said, ‘Yes.’”

For more information on the conference or to register, visit thecollider.org/climate-resilient-design. Tickets cost $195. Architects with questions may also contact AIA Asheville at info@aiaasheville.org.

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