Embracing change: a call for climate resilient buildings and cities

I live in Valencia, a temperate area, on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and, although the climate is generally pleasant, the changes are becoming more and more noticeable. I remember when I was a child and I used to go out with my parents and my brothers and sisters to Requena to enjoy a day in the snow on a Saturday or Sunday in December or January. Currently, you can do this once each three or four years. When I was a child, Summers were days of relaxation, of holidays, of playing all day with your brothers and sisters, with your friends in the street or on the beach, days of swimming in the sea and after dinner time you fell into bed and you slept peacefully.

Nowadays, Winters are milder in Spain, except when an adverse event comes along that leaves some villages isolated in a flash. And, in the Summers, the heat waves are more intense. The heat accumulated in the Mediterranean Sea affects the number of tropical nights in the Summer months. Now you can’t sleep like you used to.

Now you go to bed freshly showered with cold water, or with the air conditioning on. My trick is a bucket of cold water and ice cubes in which I stick my hand to act as a cooling circuit. The fact is that you can’t sleep until 5 o’clock in the morning and at 6:30 the alarm clock goes off to go to work. If you are lucky enough to be on holiday, you try to sleep as long as you can because later the heat is unbearable. And, if you add to that the 80% humidity, people outside can’t stand it. That’s what happens on tropical nights, those nights when the temperature doesn’t go below (hopefully) 20 degrees Celsius. During the year of 2023, and according to AEMET, the Spanish Meteorological Agency, by the beginning of October 2023 Valencia had already experienced 100 nights of tropical heat.

Image credits: Canva Pro

This may be great for tourism from northern countries, but it is fatal for the comfort and quality of life of citizens. The hot season extends into Spring and Autumn. In addition to this increase in temperature, there is also precipitation. Rainfall is increasingly scarce or spread out over time and, when it does rain, the skies open up. Each area, each region, has its own peculiarities – I am talking about what I know, about where I live. Yesterday, on the 22nd of February 2024, we reached 23 degrees Celsius at 17:30

Cities suffer from the so-called heat island effect, which contributes to these tropical nights. The usual night breezes no longer flow through cities as they used to, but they cool the beaches, orchards and suburbs. Materials also contribute to this heat island effect, as moisture evaporates quickly and does not have the same effect as vegetation. Buildings, asphalt and the effects of pollution, all contribute to a higher concentration of heat during the day, which is difficult to dissipate at night.

It is clear that building and construction needs to adapt to climate change. Citizens are clearly losing quality of life as a result. The most affected are the elderly and children. The design of buildings, the retrofitting of buildings and even the redesign of cities will have to adapt to climate change. Evolve with it. Wind, rain, snow, humidity and solar radiation can damage structures and cladding. Concrete, bricks and steel are very sensitive to temperature changes, which cause expansion and contraction that can lead to cracking. Temperature also accelerates the erosion and deterioration of materials such as steel.

The factor of the materials to be used is becoming increasingly important. Yesterday, 22nd of February 2024, a devastating fire swept through two blocks of flats. Despite immeasurable efforts by firefighters, the fire killed several people and left more than 150 families homeless. The speed at which the fire spread was astonishing. The researchers’ first impressions point to the materials used in the façade cladding.

Temperature accelerates the processes of erosion and degradation of materials. For example, prolonged exposure to extreme conditions such as high temperatures, humidity or saline environments leads to corrosion of materials such as steel in structures, which can weaken the long-term strength of buildings. Heating can also affect the mechanical properties of materials and increase their vulnerability to other events such as heavy rainfall. Constant exposure to sunlight also causes aesthetic deterioration, which can lead to deformation when combined with high temperatures.

Image credits: Canva Pro

Unconditioned and unadapted houses will be responsible for the lack of comfort of their occupants and for excessive greenhouse gas emissions due to excessive use of air conditioning and/or heating. The use of thermal insulation materials that reduce the transfer of temperature between the inside and the outside, or prevent the loss of comfort for the building’s occupants, is one of the objectives we want to achieve at SNUG.

Buildings can be used for multiple activities: we have residential, office, industrial, health, leisure, school and sports buildings. Each has its own needs. Moreover, each building is located in a different place: a hospital in Norway will not have the same insulation needs as one in the south of Spain. Nor will offices in the heart of the Alps have the same needs as others on the Italian coast. Nor will a residential building in the heart of a large German city have the same insulation requirements as one in a small village in the lowlands of the Netherlands.

Buildings need to be retrofitted to be climate resilient and SNUG aims to help buildings become climate resilient while being emission-free. As I said above, I live in Valencia and the city earned the European Green Capital 2024 title due to its past and current achievements in the field of sustainable tourism, climate neutrality, as well as fair and inclusive green transition. As I said above, I live in Valencia, today a city in mourning, but a beautiful, friendly and snug city.

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