Clients unwilling to adapt and build for climate resilience

Floods, storms, snow and heatwaves are becoming increasingly prevalent across the UK as the climate becomes increasingly volatile, and such extreme events are already causing significant damage to buildings and infrastructure. But property owners and clients are not yet willing to adapt their buildings to cope better with the effects of climate change.

That is the stark warning of the latest report to come out of government agency Innovate UK’s Design for Future Climate research stream. The report, The business case for adapting buildings to climate change: Niche or mainstream? points out, “At the moment, the UK market for adaptation services from building designers is limited, constrained by, among other things, a return on investment for clients that is perceived to be poor, how distant the risks are in time, and uncertainty. Even prior experience of severe climate impacts appears not to motivate clients, indicating a ‘lightning won’t strike twice’ inertia in the market.”

Key elements of today’s buildings such as foundations, ceiling heights and glazing ratio cannot easily be adjusted to cope with changing climate conditions, notes the report, so if buildings are to withstand increasingly challenging environments, their initial design should be optimised for climate transition. “We’re designing buildings for one lifestyle, that will have to change to another,” said report co-author Bill Gething. “We need to be designing buildings for the end of their life, rather than the beginning.”

Echoing one conclusion of the recent Edge commission into the future of professionalism led by Paul Morrell, the report says designers have a duty to “understand the impact of climate change and discuss it with clients.” It puts forward a series of ways in which building designers can strengthen the business case for adaption, as it recognises that, “left to market forces, as recommended in current policy, adapting the UK’s built environment is likely to be reactive and possibly too late to avoid the downside risks.”

The report does, however, determine signs that pressure to adapt buildings could now be coming from other sources, notably the insurance industry, investment institutions and other financial stakeholders.

At the same time, consultant Mott MacDonald and Anglia Ruskin University’s Global Sustainability Institute (GSI) have published a report making the case for greater climate resilience in business. It says that globally within 20 years $200bn of investment will be needed each year to combat US$1trn of losses from climate impacts. But it too acknowledges that while a third of this investment will offer strong returns, the balance won’t, saying that this “represents resilience and adaptation measures offering marginal business benefit, but that will nonetheless hit the bottom line as climate change worsens.”

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