Building solutions to climate change

23 February 2009

Associate Professor Richard de Dear, newly appointed to the Architectural Sciences discipline at the Faculty of Design Architecture, Design and Planning and leading expert on thermal comfort in buildings believes that the recent extreme weather in South Australia and Melbourne raises a number of questions about how we respond to our warming climate. With the heat wave about to move into Sydney, he believes that building design has a key role to play in the current conditions.

Commenting on the recent heat wave, Associate Professor de Dear explains, "The building stock can deal with a day or two of extreme temperatures but when you have a long run of very hot days like that it just becomes excessive. Everything gets heat soaked and you can't get rid of that heat. The diurnal range in temperatures isn't big enough to purge the heat at night so it just creates heat stress in built environments. At the back of everybody's mind at the moment is the fear that we're just getting a foretaste of things to come with climate change."

He continues, "We're faced with two choices: we can go the energy intensive route and construct buildings which are hermetically sealed off from the external hostile environment. The trouble with that route is that it uses prodigious quantities of energy and in an economy such as Australia you're talking about very close to 100% fossil fuels. No amount of ambitious renewable energy strategies will be enough to change the percentage significantly in our life time - its going to take a lot longer than that."

"The alternative is to adapt in a smarter way and that really does mean getting architects to think through the way that buildings relate to climate and to try and use the architectural solutions to climate more effectively than we have to date. I'm not an architect but I do understand that a lot of the work of making a building work in a climate is actually handed over to a mechanical engineer whose job it is to install HVAC and plant which consumes energy. I think we have to get beyond that and start talking about low carbon buildings. That's the way things are going overseas and it is going to happen here - its just a question of time."

While Associate Professor de Dear has been critical of past Government responses to climate change, he believes we are slowly moving in the right direction. "I think we are somewhat behind because there appears to be no master plan in Australia but it has only been eighteen months since we've had a change of Government. I think that'll come but its kind of hard to expect a complete cultural change so quickly."

Associate Professor de Dear cites Europe as a possible model to follow. "In 2003 ,the European Parliament passed a directive called the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) which spells out minimum energy efficiency levels for all buildings. It didn't go so far as determining how that is to happen but said this is the target and member countries have to comply with it, whatever way they choose. So that sparked a rash of standards changes and building code responses in different parts of the European Community. It permeates the whole regulatory environment of the building sector and that's how change starts to happen. The inspiring thing for Australia is we now have some great examples to look at and not just copy but further refine and adapt to our climate and built environmental context"

Contact: Jonathan Hulme

Phone: 02 9351 2686

Email: 27631a18471c2c785240111e6317093f026a52363676035a