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Designing buildings for a changing climate in the Great Lakes region

U.S. Forest Service

A group of planners and designers is arguing that we need to rethink the way we make our buildings. The U.S. Green Building Council and the University of Michigan recently put out a report: Green Building and Climate Resilience.

It says design teams should start making buildings that are better suited to a changing climate. That could mean redesigning heating and cooling and storm water systems, and it could mean changing the kind of landscaping we do.

Larissa Larsen is the lead author of the report. I met up with her on a corner in Ann Arbor to take a look at a new high rise apartment building that’s going up.

“This looks like a fairly traditional apartment building and that’s completely fine. We want to start thinking that this building is going to be inhabiting conditions that are different than what has been in Michigan for a long time.”

Here's one of the things that stood out to me in this report: ‘while climate has always been integrated into building professions, our codes, standards and practices typically assume the future will be similar to the past.’ I asked Larsen what she meant by that.

"In architecture, they use something called the typical meteorological year, and it’s a way to understand what we think are going to be the needs of the building from a heating, and cooling perspective, a consumption perspective, really. And it’s based on information from 1970. Well, we know in Ann Arbor, that in 1970, spring came about a week to 14 days later than it comes now. So we’ve got to make sure that the information we’re feeding into the models to generate what are the right sizes of equipment and capacity of those systems? We need to change that up. And so we actually anticipate not only what it is today, but looking ahead, what is it going to be in 2040, 2070, the end of the century?”

She says in our region, climate scientists are expecting warmer temperatures, with more extreme heat events and more intense storms. 

"Now, depending on what happens with emissions scenarios, people are thinking Michigan could emulate more of a situation like Kentucky all the way to the most extreme emissions scenarios, say, it might even be like northern Texas, which is a little amazing to me. So we’re going to see an increase in the number and size of drought prone areas, so we’ve got to need to be thinking pretty strategically how we want to use water in our buildings and equally as important, outside our buildings for landscape purposes.”

So - that made me wonder: how in the world do design teams hedge their bets and design for a future that's uncertain?  Larsen says she recommends designers follow "no regrets" strategies:

"One of the things we came upon in this report is a lot of the techniques we’re encouraging people to do are good things to do no matter what. One of the things I’m interested in is reflective surfaces. They don’t trap, hold and re-emit the heat, but they actually bounce it back. Another strategy is pervious pavement. That’s pavement that is very similar in appearance to asphalt but it actually has pores. That allows water to move through it. Not only is that good for storm water or on-site water management, but we also think then it allows for evapo-transpiration. Some of the water from the soil can actually move back through the pores and be a cooling effect on the surrounding area.

And then just good, honest site planning. Thinking about the flood plain. Our flood plains may be expanding and many communities right now are redrawing their flood plains to look at this. We don’t want to be putting buildings in those places if we’re anticipating that we may have more intense rain events.”

If you'd like to learn more, the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences & Assessment Center put together this site: Great Lakes Climate 101 (i.e. everything you've wanted to know about climate change in the Great Lakes region but were afraid to ask).





Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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