How Our Designs Must Adapt To A Hotter World

Perkins+Will leaders take a look at the future, and how climate change will impact design.

How Our Designs Must Adapt To A Hotter World

While there is now widespread consensus that the global climate is changing, few people take into consideration the changes that have already occurred in our daily activities. This is particularly relevant for the design community. We continue to design buildings, products, and processes for today, without full recognition that we live in a different place than we used to.


Our design challenge is realizing that we are locked in to change: According to current research, even if we were to cease emitting all greenhouse gases today, we can expect global temperatures to continue to increase from the lingering effects of emissions already in the atmosphere.

What strategies will help us cope with our new climate?

Many strategies to address the global climate crisis have been based on the goal of reducing emissions and curbing greenhouse gases, such as practicing energy efficiency, planting trees, improving automobile miles per gallon, and biofuels. Of course we need to continue to aggressively reduce net emissions, but designers also need to tackle the reality of the environmental change that has already happened. If we are locked in to a certain amount of climate change, how should we be designing to adapt to those changes? What strategies will help us cope with our new climate?


Envisioning what the climate will be like 50, 75, or 150 years out is the first step in adaptation planning. We then need to ask: Which activities will be affected and how? What policies will help us cope with predicted change in climate? What opportunities will emerge? How will the design of our cities interface with our new climate? We need to alleviate predicted negative impacts through systems-thinking and build resilience into the system.

Adaptation is more than a good idea. It is a must — especially when considering that many populations that are most affected by climate change tend to have fewer resources with which to cope with changes — necessitating the design of adaptable communities as soon as possible. In other words, moving to higher ground is not as easy as it sounds.

Many local governments are already feeling the impact and preparing themselves.

The better we plan now, the easier it will be for us to sustain and prosper in the future. This new way of thinking spans the design, policy, and even global market trends for businesses. While it may not be a national priority at the moment, many local governments are already feeling the impact of these changes and preparing themselves to adapt to continued change in the future through integration with the development of long-range plans. For example, the Coast Guard has moved lighthouses and the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority elevated a water treatment facility — both projects stemming from predicted sea level rise and impact on infrastructure.


Adaptation should not be considered a plan in lieu of reducing emissions, but as a parallel effort. The good news is that many strategies exist to help communities and our designs adapt and reduce emissions, by focusing on “using less” and working within real world constraints on natural resources and energy security. For example, if our plumbing fixtures use less water, then we are not as greatly affected by drought and if we move toward distributed renewable energy, then we will be less threatened by energy distribution interruptions.

Climate Modeling

Buildings’ energy plans and water reclamation systems are designed and sized based on historical averages for temperature, humidity, and rainfall. But the problem is that most weather data used by engineers when modeling the energy performance of buildings dates from 1960 to 1990 or earlier. And, until more recent data is compiled, the industry will continue to design with outdated weather data as their source of information, which can be a significant problem considering that the past 10 years are coincidentally the 10 hottest years in recorded history.

If our buildings are to operate effectively, we need to better use climate models.

If our buildings are to operate effectively and support the sustainable communities we envision for the future, we need to better use climate models to understand real trending and attempt to forecast the changes that will occur. With more accurate information, we can design buildings that not only function, but thrive in our new climate.

While climate changes are difficult to predict, global climate models offer a range of scenarios that can be modeled, each representing an alternative path that global emissions may follow. The four main scenarios are from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2010 Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES) (PDF) and show how emissions will impact climate change, given a set of circumstances.

Our future is in our hands. The buildings that we design or renovate today will be around for 50 or more years and will experience the continuing effects of climate change. Prudent design today will allow for efficient and effective operation for the life of buildings.



Living with Lakes Centre

Sudbury, Ontario, Canada is undergoing major change. By transforming itself from one of the most polluted places on Earth — resulting from a long history of nickel mining and acid rain — to a model for sustainability and restoration, Sudbury proves that with the concerted efforts of scientists, industry, and community citizens working together, environmental restoration is attainable. As proof of this transformation, trees have returned to the landscape and many lakes have are restoring themselves from the effects of acid rain.

Part of Laurentian University, the Living with Lakes Centre is a light-duty laboratory researching water quality and how it recovers from a history of acid rain. The building is located on the shores of Lake Ramsey, the water source for Sudbury.

Regional climate research scientists who regularly work with climate modeling said that factors we can expect the local climate in 2050 include:

  1. 1. Winter and summer temperatures increasing by about 3°C
  2. 2. Summers will be dryer overall and rainfall will occur in fewer but more intense events
  3. 3. Snowpack levels will decrease, resulting in reduced water supplies from mountains

The project, which was recently completed and registered to achieve LEED Platinum, is also designed to specifically meet the area’s climate in 50 years.



For Living with Lakes, this meant that the project needed to be designed to address adaptation in a number of ways. Reducing the energy demands of the building not only lowered present operational costs, but reduced future demand for energy, assuming energy will become scarce and correspondingly expensive.

The Centre has detached itself from skyrocketing fossil fuel prices

The efficient building design resulted in lower cooling loads through shading, glazing design, and insulation with solar hot water systems generating some of the building’s heating energy demand. Additionally, water efficiency is optimized through efficient fixtures, and also dealt with in novel ways that will help the building deal with both drought and floods. These systems, when considered in unison, contribute to the facility being 70 percent more efficient than a conventional building and adds layers of resilience to help the building maintain comfort and stable operations in the future.


Through the use of passive systems and renewable energy available today, the Centre has detached itself from the economic burdens of skyrocketing fossil fuel prices to ensure operational sustainability. Eventually, with the incorporation of increasingly economical renewable energies, as well as climate-oriented design strategies, the building could become a carbon neutral, net energy producer.


Designers, business leaders, governments, and planners have the opportunity to move beyond only mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and reducing energy use to save money and slow climate change. We can position ourselves to succeed 25, 50, or 75 years from now by including climate adaptation planning as an integral part of our process. In this sense, adaptation planning moves beyond conventional climate action plans to identify and implement actions and strategies that will reduce underlying vulnerabilities as our society continues to adjust to a new climate.

Resiliency really is the name of game.

Adaptation strategies in design can improve the resilience of communities and help them cope with major environmental disturbances. At the same time, they promote creativity and collaborative research, and can minimize operations and maintenance costs.

Resiliency really is the name of game. By thinking about how our designs and systems will cope with still uncertain changes in climate, we have the opportunity to moderate potential damage, take advantage of opportunities, and prepare ourselves to cope with the consequences. Let’s hope we limit the extent to which we are required to adapt.

As a lead for Sustainable Advisory Services, John Mlade works with clients at Perkins+Will to improve the performance of their project designs, business strategies and operational plans. Drawing on a great breadth and depth of experiences in sustainability, he promotes positive change in his work through the use of tools for systems thinking, reflective conversation and visioning.


Blair McCarry is an engineer and Principal at Perkins+Will and responsible for engineering and energy systems. He uses his extensive knowledge of sustainable engineering to provide high-level overview regarding the integration of architectural and mechanical systems.

[Top image by Kevin Dooley]