UK buildings need sustainable cooling to adapt to global warming

UK, Switzerland and Norway are among countries that will see the world’s most dramatic relative increase in uncomfortably hot days, but they are under prepared
03 August 2023 , Nicola Smith

Federation of Master Builders says “not improving homes will undoubtedly put more pressure on health and social services”

The UK will be one of the countries to see the world’s most dramatic relative increase in days that require cooling interventions – such as window shutters, ventilation, fans, or air conditioning – if the world overshoots 1.5℃ of warming, according to University of Oxford research. 

Switzerland and the UK will see a 30% increase in days with uncomfortably hot temperatures if the world misses the 1.5℃ target and heats to 2℃, while Norway will see an increase of 28%. The researchers say this does not consider extreme events like heatwaves.

Co-lead author, Dr Jesus Lizana, Postdoctoral researcher and Marie Curie Fellow at the Department’s Energy and Power Group explains, “If we adapt the built environment in which we live, we won’t need to increase air conditioning. But right now, in countries like the UK, our buildings act like greenhouses - no external protection from the sun in buildings, windows locked, no natural ventilation and no ceiling fans. Our buildings are exclusively prepared for the cold seasons.”

Brian Berry, Chief Executive, Federation of Master Builders (FMB) adds that ventilation, glazing and shading from the sun will be important to future design. “Importantly we have to ensure new homes are healthy, safe spaces in the first instance and don’t require retrofitting down the line, as there is already an urgent need to upgrade the UK’s existing 29 million homes to make them fit for the future.”

Professor Tim Sharpe, Head of Architecture, University of Strathclyde agrees that the main challenge lies with older buildings. “The UK doesn’t have very good required standards for retrofitting – there are some good codes of practice like PAS 2035 but they’re not enforced in the same way as regulations for new buildings.”

“Extreme heat can lead to dehydration, heat exhaustion, and even death, especially in vulnerable populations. It’s a health and economic imperative that we prepare for more hot days.”

Sustainable cooling interventions are urgently needed to prevent a sharp increase in the use of energy heavy systems such as air conditioning. As Sharpe says, air conditioning causes numerous problems: “It becomes a new form of energy consumption which contributes to [global warming], the very problem underlying all this. Secondly, air conditioning units are very good at cooling outdoors but they dump a huge amount of heat outside the building so your urban heat island [a metropolitan area that is significantly warmer than the rural areas surrounding it] becomes much more significant.”

The report authors believe the UK is dangerously underprepared for global warming.  Co-lead author Dr Nicole Miranda, Senior Researcher in the Energy and Power Group, University of Oxford says, “The UK saw massive amounts of disruption in the record-breaking heatwaves of 2022. Extreme heat can lead to dehydration, heat exhaustion, and even death, especially in vulnerable populations. It’s a health and economic imperative that we prepare for more hot days.”

Louise Hosking, Executive Director of Environmental Health, CIEH says environmental health professionals play a vital role in tackling climate change and in preparing communities for the impact of climate change on the environment. “Our buildings not being able to handle extreme heat is a public health risk and we want to see healthy buildings and homes of good and long-lasting quality and design as a central theme of the future planning system.”

She added that, when outdoor air quality is poor, so too is indoor air quality. “Indoor air quality is largely unregulated in comparison to energy performance. In creating a tighter building envelope to save energy our buildings potentially retain pollutants, humidity may increase and create overheating.” CIEH is campaigning for tighter regulation of domestic solid fuel burners in urban areas where there are other heating alternatives.

“We know that healthy and safe buildings contribute to the health and wellbeing of the nation and reduce the costs to the NHS and to society in the long term,” says Hosking.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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