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Architecture Today: Are the UK homes of tomorrow

being designed for the past?

Linda Forbes Unit A1 September 2006

“My interest is in the future because I am going to spend the rest of my

life there.”
Charles F. Kettering1

In Unit A1 students were invited to think about issues of environment,
energy use, and sustainability. Given the environmental impact of home-
building, in energy and land-use terms, and the longevity of dwellings, the
importance of house design with respect to future climate scenarios is self-
evident. This is reinforced by statistics for England showing that 40% of
dwellings were built over 60 years ago, with 22% pre-dating 1919 (HM
Government: Dept of Communities and Local Government, 2005).

This essay considers the need to pre-empt changes to local climate, with
planners, architects and builders devising appropriate design and building
techniques to meet the housing challenges ahead. Assumptions underlying
climate change are examined; and the likely outcomes that need to be
addressed will be discussed in this document.

Over the last two million years, the climate has fluctuated between Ice
Ages, which can last for up to 100,000 years and warmer periods
(interglacials) of around 10,000 years in length. Currently, the climate is
within an interglacial period, although Milankovitch’s orbital theory of
climate change, which explains the transitions between glacial-interglacial
periods, predicts this may be coming towards its end.

“Evidence from palaeoclimatic records supports Milankovitch’s theory,

which identifies three types of variation in the Earth's orbit around the Sun
that could act as mechanisms to change global climate. These include
changes in the tilt of the Earth’s axis, the shape of Earth's orbit and the
shifting of the equinoxes. Each variation has its specific time period, and
together they affect the total amount of sunlight received by the Earth,
and its distribution at different latitudes and at different times.”
(Manchester Metropolitan University, 2000)

Linda Forbes Unit A1 Essay 1

In the 1960s, talk was of another Ice Age. However, a later review showed
that the Earth had actually warmed throughout the 20th century. The time
series graph below shows the combined global land/marine surface
temperature anomaly record from 1850 to 2005.

(Brohan, P., et al, 2006)

Information on past global

climates and atmospheric
composition can be
obtained from Antarctic
ice cores. These indicate
low concentrations of CO2
and methane during
glacial periods and high
ones during interglacials,
and correlate closely with
temperature changes. This
suggests greenhouse gases
have an important role in
change to global

(Images: Geerts and

Linacre, 2002).

Linda Forbes Unit A1 Essay 2

Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
members are committed to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions; and make
progress in adaptation to the effects of climate change. As a member of the
international community, the UK appears to take its responsibilities
seriously, despite contributing only 2% of global greenhouse gases. (HM
Government: Dept of Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA),
2005). The larger challenge will be for the USA and BRIC (Brazil, India,
China) to address their emission levels, but this lies outside the scope of
this essay.

In support of this commitment, the UK Climate Change Programme 2006 was

published by DEFRA. Its main focus is on mitigation by means of efficiency
measures, emissions trading and public education. Adaptation merits a
section, highlighting work being done by UK Climate Impacts Programme
(UKCIP). This body, set up in 1997, works with businesses and organisations,
modelling scenarios (such as UKCIP98 and UKCIP02) to assess the effects of
climate change on their industry or region, and how to prepare for its

With regard to the question this essay raises, the partnership between
UKCIP and CIBSE (Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers) is of
some note. The collaboration between these partners, known as the KTP
Project, brings together academics, research organisations and industry
professionals to advance their aims (Westaway, R., 2006). These are ‘to
develop a coherent and consistent conceptual framework for using
weather/climate data in building design, and incorporate in this
framework a risk-based approach that will enable the building industry to
develop appropriate design solutions in order to increase resilience of
buildings and their systems against climate change, using emerging UK
climate scenario data’.

And in the wider architectural context, the Tyndall Centre for Climate
Change Research programme – Adapting to Climate Change – investigated
how changing temperature extremes will affect buildings, using a standard
multi-storey office block as their subject. Their report concluded that ‘With
many buildings in the UK being quite old there is a strong probability that
they will fail the comfort criterion by a larger margin than the example
used above. Hence there will be a need for major refurbishment to
maintain summer comfort. Buildings constructed under current Building
Regulations will perform better but these are in a significant minority.’
(Levermore, G., et al, 2004).

Linda Forbes Unit A1 Essay 3

It is commonly held that likely changes to climate in the UK from global
warming will be:
• increased temperature over longer periods;
• unpredictable rainfall, with summer droughts and winter floods;
• rising sea levels; and
• more frequent extreme weather events, including storms, high winds
and tidal surges.

So just how warm might it become? Data suggests that London could see
peak temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius regularly in less than a lifetime if
high levels of greenhouse gas emissions continue (Westaway, R., 2006). On
the other hand, scientists report ocean current circulations are both slowing
and declining in volume, possibly as a consequence of climate change, and
the UK may lose the warming effect of the Gulf Stream (Bryden et al, 2005).
Should this be the case, then colder winters may also need to be factored
into the design equation.

How might a design for the future mass-produced home in the UK look? It
would need to have:
• good ventilation, preferably without air-conditioning (unless PV-
• more insulation and/or thermal mass, to keep heat in during winter
and out in the summer
• flexible window systems to avoid solar gain in summer, and heat loss
in winter
• rainwater harvesting systems to capture water in times of plenty
• foundations capable of withstanding subsidence owing drought, or
effects of flooding.

And what about siting? May be obvious but best to avoid estuaries and
floodplains, which are likely to extend much further inland and more widely
than presently; and exposed sites open to prevailing winds or subject to
erosion. Other disbenefits to consider may include higher levels of humidity
and its effect on building structure and thermal comfort, and pollution of
underground water owing inundation by salt water or sewage.

It appears that the benefits of modern technology and pre-fabrication have

yet to enter the mainstream British home-owning psyche – and architects
could (and should?) be at the forefront of this revolution, possibly using
adaptation to climate change as a key driver. Clear indications of a
willingness of the British public to take heed of climate change warnings are
all around. Witness the decision of B&Q to stock solar panels and domestic
wind turbines in their stores; and growth in organic food sales.

Linda Forbes Unit A1 Essay 4

But, perhaps we are already seeing the beginnings of this. Deputy Prime
Minister, John Prescott MP, promoted the Design for Manufacture
competition, run by English Partnerships on behalf of the Department for
Communities and Local Government. Its aim was to demonstrate it is
possible to build a high-quality home for a construction cost of £60,000. In
the ‘Lessons Learnt’ report (HM Government: Dept of Communities and
Local Government, and English Partnerships, 2006), it was clear that future
proofing against climate change had been identified and addressed by some
competitors: “The prefabricated construction techniques have also
exploited the potential for eco lanterns and eco hats that warm homes in
the winter and cool them in the summer by releasing heat.”

And in 2005 Joseph Rowntree Foundation sponsored a design competition

for affordable suburban housing in the 21st century that meets both
EcoHomes and Lifetime homes standards. This competition was in response
to Kate Barker’s report on housing and the significant shortage therein
identified, and to the impact upon people housed in hastily constructed, ill-
designed developments around the UK in the 1960s and 70s. Planning
permission was granted by City of York Council in May 2006 for the winning
proposal at Elm Tree Garage: a site which falls within a conservation area.
(Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2005). However, no mention is made of
adapting to the effects of climate change. Was this a missed opportunity, or
a deliberate decision?

The long-term poverty of design aspirations with regard to domestic

dwellings in the UK is discussed in a recent article ‘The curse of Mr
Barratt’. This issue is not just one of today’s making: reference is made to
Clough Williams-Ellis, the designer of Portmeirion Village, who described
housebuilding in the inter-war period as ‘mean and perky houses for mean
and perky souls’. And in the 21st century it sees opportunity for innovation
being constrained by buyers’ conventional tastes because they are paying so
much and need to consider resale values (Moran, J., 2006).

Adaptation of design to create hundreds of thousands of 21st century-proof

homes, and conversion of current housing stock to provide comfortable
homes in the new climate conditions, may not be feasible in the timeframe.
The cost impact of building and renewal on this scale may also be beyond
the economic capacity of the UK.

Should we instead focus solely on mitigation, rather than adaptation? After

all, the built environment – which includes our housing stock of more than
24 million homes, of which 1.6 million are currently unfit for human
habitation – is responsible for 52% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Linda Forbes Unit A1 Essay 5

The Sustainable Buildings Task Group (SBTG) report ‘Better buildings –
better lives’ recommends a single national Code for Sustainable Buildings
(CSB), based on the Building Research Establishment’s Environmental
Assessment Method (BREEAM), be developed. This code incorporates
specified minimum standards in energy and water efficiency, surface water
management, building site and household waste and use of materials.
Currently, within the social housing sector, developments of new and
renovated homes comply with BRE’s EcoHomes standard (itself a subset of
BREEAM). Both the proposed CSB and the EcoHomes standards concentrate
on mitigating climate change.

Clearly, improved building standards and energy efficiency as currently

proposed in the CSB could alleviate some negative impacts on climate
change of new builds. Environmentalists call for the code to be mandatory,
and tougher in its approach to efficiency and lower emissions (Friends of
the Earth, 2006); whilst industry would prefer the CSB code remain
voluntary - but ultimately it’s likely to be a question of political will in
determining how effective the code will be.

And finally, consideration of general environmental issues too must form

part of any solution: re-design of surrounding green or open spaces, and
new planting schemes could, in the future, provide some relief from high-
density, over-heated homes in existing urban developments. Care will be
required in species selection to ensure ability to withstand anticipated
climatic variations: remembering that trees can be long-lived and subject to
storm damage. And for new build, the position of dwellings in relation to
one another may need to be re-thought to take account of changed rainfall
and wind patterns.

At the beginning of this essay, the question “Are the UK homes of tomorrow
being designed for the past?” was posed. On present evidence then the
answer must be an equivocal “Yes”.

Clearly, climate change is here to stay, be it an unpredictable force.

Politicians, in the vanguard on environmental issues nowadays, have a very
short half-life, vide Prescott, and despite their best intentions are often
more concerned with the next election than the next century. Business too,
in this age of short-term gain, is often no longer willing, or able, to take
risks with shareholders’ stakes in building for the future. Visionaries, such
as Bazalgette, Beveridge, Brunel and Bevan, are people of the past.

“Pioneers may be picturesque figures, but they are often rather lonely
Nancy Astor2

Linda Forbes Unit A1 Essay 6

It behoves, therefore, in my opinion, the planners, architects and designers
to encourage the development of homes best suited to the different world
envisaged by climatologists. Could ideas, perhaps, be sought from
architecture in climates that currently model conditions likely to be found
in the UK in future? Or could a competition in the format of BBC’s
‘Restoration’ whet the public appetite for innovation?

The scope of this essay is ambitious: with so many unresolved variables, the
argument raises more questions than it answers. Given the experience of
the writer it may have been more appropriate to address a simpler topic.

We cannot with certainty know all the effects of climate change on our
planet; climate modelling is a complex field, requiring manipulation of vast
quantities of data, through a variety of models, each with their own
limitations and inaccuracies.

The recent rapid expansion of a number of developing economies may prove

to have contributed significantly to increasing greenhouse gas levels; much
of this data has yet to be analysed and reported upon in the scientific press,
and may render some of the ideas and figures in this essay redundant,
improbable or incorrect.

From the research undertaken, it appears little work has yet been done in
directing the field of climate change adaptation; most effort being focused
on mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, and increased efficiency. The
research being undertaken by UKCIP and CIBSE will bear further
investigation. The involvement of RIBA and others representing the
architectural and building sectors within this process would be a welcome
step in the profession recognising their role.

Detailed study on the subject of thermal comfort in different types of

climate may be likely to inform potential adaptive solutions to UK housing

Negative social and economic impacts of living and working within a built
environment unsuited to the climate can include health problems (heat-
related stress and premature deaths in the elderly), increases in crime
(particularly violent crime) and lower productivity. Insurance on property
and contents may become increasingly difficult to obtain in particular
situations and locations.

Linda Forbes Unit A1 Essay 7

Research on the commercial sector indicates that upgrading will be required
on a significant proportion of buildings to prepare them for effective use in
the new conditions.

Consideration also needs to be had as to the effect of increased

temperatures on public goods such as schools, hospitals, road surfaces and
railway lines – the original construction materials, designs and building
techniques being specified for use under operating conditions that differ
significantly by mid-21st century.

Climate change and its effects will be global; the UK’s access to building
materials, resources and finance to plan and provide for the future may be
constrained by geopolitical changes that have yet to be predicted. The
economy may not be sufficiently resilient to continue to perform effectively
when facing the expenditure required to prepare for a more dynamic
natural environment.


1 14th October 2006

Charles Franklin Kettering (1876-1958) was born in Ohio; gained an electrical engineering
degree from Ohio State University. He held that new ideas can be developed through
cooperative team efforts, applying this to a broad range of interests.

2 14th October

Nancy Witcher Astor, Viscountess Astor (1879-1964) was a socialite politician and a member
of the prominent Astor family. She was the first woman to serve as a member of the British
House of Commons.


environmental rating for homes. Retrieved 14th October 2006 from World Wide Web

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BRYDEN ET AL, 1 December 2005. Climate Change: A Sea Change. Nature 438: 655-657.

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inadequate". Retrieved 14th October 2006 from World Wide Web

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Condition Survey Standard Tables, SP1a: Dwelling age compared with tenure 2004.
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Linda Forbes Unit A1 Essay 8

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October 2006 from World Wide Web

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Linda Forbes Unit A1 Essay 9