Architectural Solutions to Climate Change and Humanity's Future
A professional discusses potential architectural solutions to climate change, and the overarching impact they could have on humanity.
The climate crisis is the greatest challenge facing humanity, with potentially disastrous ecological, economic and social consequences. And like the COVID-19 epidemic, the impacts of climate change will fall disproportionately on less affluent members of society who cannot easily adapt to a warmer world by running their air conditioners more often or moving to escape rising sea levels. In this way, climate change is a crisis of social justice, exacerbated by depleting land values, increasingly scarce resources (and conflicts over them) and forced global migrations. Together, these present a dual challenge to architects and designers like myself: how to mitigate, address and adapt to changing environmental conditions while creating conscientious, sustainable lifestyles that are accessible to every segment of society.
Twenty-first-century architects and designers can view climate change as an opportunity for new modes of design thinking. In the past, the influence of climate on architecture has mostly consisted of new constraints on design, like certification and building standards that have modified or replaced vernacular and traditional building materials and techniques. In the future, we need to expand the lexicon of climate architecture by investigating how architecture and design can be used to visualize changing climates; address the social, economic and health impacts of climate change; and transform public space around shared resources and knowledge.
Architecture’s Impact on the Environment Isn’t Obvious, but It’s There
One way we can achieve this is by recognizing that the notion of public spaces must be extended to include shared resources, such as the water we drink and the air we breathe. A city’s infrastructure is just as important for its public life as its squares, concert halls and coffee shops. Conversely, parks have historically been viewed as urban amenities, but their cool grasses and shady trees may be necessities in cities that will be increasingly devastated by summer heatwaves. All of these factors will come to define new domains of work, leisure, transport and infrastructure space.
Architects and designers can also conceptualize materials and design elements via the natural media that make up Earth’s climate. By incorporating natural climate elements—dust, wind, clouds, water, ice and sun—into design thinking and construction, architects can give materiality to Earth’s changing climate, and make legible the problem of climate change.
Take dust, for instance. Dust provides a visceral representation of atmospheric motions, and drying lakes will only increase the amount of dust in the atmosphere. Climate change will also lead to major changes in wind patterns, affecting prevailing wind directions and the frequency and severity of storms and other extreme events. Similarly, recent climate studies suggest a reduction of cloud cover in warmer climates, which could worsen heatwaves and social inequalities associated with shade. Then we have acid rain, melting ice-caps and rising sea levels, which have become some of the most iconic—and devastating—images of environmental change.
Natural media—such as dust, winds, clouds, water, ice and sun—are foundational to how humans engage with the climate system. It’s important to acknowledge that climate change is not only a condition for us humans to adapt to or resources for us to manage. Instead, our environment is a place for shared cultural values.
An Example of How Architecture and Climate Change Are Connected
In my design practice, I am currently exploring the possibility of visualizing climate change through architecture as part of a collaboration for a combined research facility and community center in the Salton Sea. This facility will aid ongoing scientific efforts to measure, model and observe the changing dust conditions in the Salton Sea region, while also providing an amenity for the public to experience and learn about the region’s climatic changes. In the future, it will be important to see new interdisciplinary collaborations form between scientists, public policymakers, landholders and designers.
The building itself serves as a didactic tool for rendering the rapidly changing climate visible, both through its scientific and educational programs and, more importantly, via a permeable membrane that envelopes the building and filters dust from surrounding debris to form a stratigraphy recording the layers of accumulation. As the sea shrinks and more of the lake bed is uncovered, the dust’s physical and chemical properties change so that, just as layers of rock record sequences of environmental change, the stratigraphy that accumulates along the building’s glass facade detail acts as an embodiment of the invisible impacts of climate change across timescales.
Environmental Design Should Be the Rule, Not the Exception
Over the next century, we will see a shift in cities. Rising temperatures, resource scarcity and more frequent natural disasters will all reveal inequities in the way we share space. Land value will continue to reflect these pressures, and populations will redistribute as we have seen already in global conflicts stressed through desertification. In relation to building technology, climate media provides a basis for exploring specific material properties, assemblies and details for specific sites. For example, wire-mesh structures could be used to study how ice melts, breaks up and responds to shifting grounds during the collapse of ice shelves, the melting of glaciers or the gradual disappearance of winter snows.
Lastly, our built environment will reveal the multiple timescales of climate change. In the case of the Salton Sea, where dust gradually builds from the drying of the lake bed, architecture links together the human timescale, the building’s timescale of inhabitation and, ultimately, the geologic timescale on which periods of environmental change are recorded. With this in mind, design provides a basis for how multiple user groups can come together to interact, exchange and adapt in new environmentally-focused commons.