Climate conscious architecture comes first when thinking about climate crisis mitigation

4 minutes read.

Comparing the impact or climate-resilient architecture versus air conditioning shows why climate conscious architecture is so important in climate crisis mitigation.

Shady street in a Spanish city.

When talking with people about climate mitigation in cities, one is sometimes confronted with the viewpoint that smart solutions around microgrids, air conditioning, renewable energy around photovoltaics, wind energy etc. will solve all climate issues in cities in the future. However, while all these things will certainly play an important role when designing climate resilient cities, all they can do is to make it a little less worse and important as these topics are, they should come second after climate-resilient building.

But before we dive deeper into the reasons for this, let’s briefly shine some light on the situation that we are dealing with:

Urbanization, Climate Crisis and their Consequences

A quick overview: Urbanization is an ongoing trend with predictions that by 2050 86% of the developed world will be urbanized.

Cities are urban heat islands, they are warming up beyond the effect of climate crisis with an estimated average temperature rise of 1-3°C above the surrounding areas. At night this temperature gap is even higher, since secondary radiation makes it harder for the urban landscape too cool down than rural landscapes, which enjoy a much larger sky-view factor.

The combination of climate crisis and urban heat islands can already today create weather conditions that exceed the physiological limits that humans can survive. This happens in hot and humid climates, when the wet-bulb temperature exceeds 35°C. In these conditions, the body cannot cool itself anymore by sweating and even healthy individuals cannot sustain such wet-bulb temperatures even in the shade sitting next to a fan. Such conditions have been observed and are increasing in frequency, jeopardizing especially the health of vulnerable persons (but in general also the productivity of the entire population.)

This clearly shows an increasing necessity and clear duty to architects and urban planners to pay attention to cooling solutions. It will become a question of survival and already is for vulnerable individuals.

So back to our initial question - why should green architecture be prioritized over smart energy solutions?

Moving energy

When we pump natural gas through a pipeline, burn it to produce hot gas and use that to make electricity, tranport this electricity to a consumer we are constantly changing the energy from one form into another. The second law of thermodynamics says that for each of these transformation we must produce (heat) losses. This is equally true for sustainable energy - wether it is produced from solar cells, wind turbines, geothermal boreholes or any other source.

But what has that to do with architecture and microgrids? Well it basically says that when we cool something down, for examply the interior of our houses, we will always make something else warmer not by the same, but by a greater amount. The inevitable heat losses mean, that, if you cool a cubic meter of air in a building by 1°C, you must heat a cubic meter of air outside the building by more than 1°C.

Tinou Bao from San Francisco, USA, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

So whatever smart solution we are coming up with for cooling down our living spaces using electricity, we will always generate more heat in the process than we managed to cool down. Sounds fairly academic? Unfortunately not.

Air Condition: A heating system for cities

A number of studies for big cities (Paris, Tokio, Phoenix(full paper) and recently a study for Osaka published in Nature open access) have shown that air condition use will increase temperatures in cities, especially during nighttime by 0.5-3°C above even the normal urban heat island effekt.

These studies show - in summary - that:

There is a positive air condition feedback cycle: the hotter a city is, the more air condition is used, the hotter the city becomes, resulting in up to +3°C higher night time temperature on top of urban heat island effects and climate crisis warming.
  • Waste heat from air condition is heating up cities
  • Temperature increase is 0.5-3°C, especially at night
  • Asian cities will be affected with a linear increase
  • Northern European cities will see a surge in air conditioning and experience this air condition feedback cycle and acting early in urban planning is an effective strategy to cope with that

This temperature increase does not even take into account, the additional heating that occurs on the energy supply side for air conditioning (i.e. producing and transporting the electricity to supply the air conditioning). These effects will contribute to global warming too, but are not confined to urban areas.

Climate Resilient Architecture

So overall: passive cooling, freely offered by nature and leveraged by clever architecture and smart urban planning must come before other solutions. Actively using energy will always create heat losses somewhere that adversely affect the environment and cause more warming, hotter heat islands and create the need for even more cooling solutions.

High-albedo mediterranean architecture.

Having a solid policy and principles in place that prioritize passive cooling and green architecture, will stall the need to use active methods like air conditioning. If a city does not heat up as much, less people will perceive the need to use air conditioning, resulting in less energy use and a cooler microclimate. Not only does this increase the quality of living and keeps a city’s contribution to climate change on a minimum, it also curbs heat-related death and illness1.

There are a number of techniques that support passive cooling. None of these are really new, but using them consistently and employing the best available tools - like microclimate simulations - can make a huge difference and prevent a runaway-process of air condition cooling: use shading, evaporative cooling from plants, “green” architecture as much as possible, use surfaces with high albedo (mediterranean towns are white for a reason), ensure good ventilation to create cool summer breezes (with the added benefit that also the perceived temperture will be lower) and air conditioning / active energy solutions only as last possibility.

If you actively use energy at all, do it in a way that keeps the movement and amount of energy at a minimum: Use automated shading first, then fans and only then air conditioning. In all cases source the electricity locally eg. via rooftop PV and small-scale wind energy to minimize grid losses, though even with that, the fundamental thermodynamics described above applies.

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