Last week UN Secretary General António Guterres warned that global warming has ended and that “the era of global boiling has arrived.” This comes after nearly a month of record setting temperatures around the globe. In fact, July 2023 was the hottest month on record since we began recording temperatures. Extreme temperatures and weather events threaten future construction projects, workers, and the longevity of our infrastructure. Unfortunately, we will probably be dealing with these issues for years to come. The only thing we can do now is learn how to mitigate these problems with new technologies and construction techniques.

This article highlights some of the problems climate change poses for the construction industry, and offers some solutions to mitigate them.

Issues That Future Construction Will Face From Climate Change

Worker safety

Unsurprisingly, storms and extreme temperatures can affect worker safety and productivity. Because construction workers mainly work outdoors, they are particularly vulnerable to hazards like extreme heat, natural disasters, and poor air quality.

Heat Related Illnesses

As temperatures rise, so do heat illnesses like heatstroke and heat exhaustion. Heatstroke can be incredibly dangerous, causing death or permanent disability if left untreated. Companies may need to offer more breaks, shaded areas, more water, and extra attention to signs of heatstroke in employees.

Respiratory Illnesses

Sadly, climate change will lead to poorer air quality in many ways. Droughts and wildfires create dust plumes and particulate matter; Harmful ground-level ozone levels will increase with higher temperatures and other pollutants; And as temperatures rise, the length and severity of pollen allergy season will increase. All of these issues can lead to respiratory illness including asthma. Employers should regularly check air quality levels via AirNow.gov, and provide dust masks and other PPE if necessary. 

Natural Disasters

Global warming has already increased the number and severity of extreme weather events and natural disasters. Hot temperatures can cause and worsen droughts and wildfires. Heat also increases water vapor evaporation in the atmosphere which leads to more powerful storms. And increased ocean surface temperatures from hotter weather can lead to more powerful tropical storms. All of these events can put construction workers at risk. It is vital that in the event of an emergency, employers follow local, state, and federal guidelines including evacuation orders. After such events, many construction workers may have complicated emotional reactions like anxiety, depression, and PTSD. It is important to provide them with the proper mental health services. 

Weather-related delays

Many companies rely on personal experience and historical data on weather patterns to help them predict and avoid poor weather during their construction projects. This data iscrucial to engineers and planners in designing projects such as roads and bridges to withstand the worst downpours.”  However, most of the data that construction companies receive about precipitation is based on an NOAA program that uses weather data from as many as 200 years ago. Naturally, this data does not take into account climate change and changing weather patterns. This can prove problematic for construction companies.

In fact, a recent report asserted that the NOAA data is decades out of date and unable to accurately predict and protect infrastructure against major rain events and flooding. This can lead to delays, higher costs, and even project failure or destruction. Already, every year, weather delays 45% of construction projects, resulting in billions of dollars of lost revenue and material expenses. As you can imagine, these delays will only increase with more extreme weather events. And many worry that outdated weather data may lead to infrastructure that is inadequately built for new average rainfall and storm conditions. 

Construction materials design and manufacturing

To make matters worse, extreme weather can make materials more expensive and difficult to source. This can happen with weather related events like wildfires and floods which prevent raw materials from being sourced or destroy areas where materials are being produced. Droughts can also be problematic because they can reduce the amount of water available on construction sites and in the manufacturing process. This can lead to further delays and costs and even prevent materials from being sourced in the first place. 

Material Longevity

Extreme heat and weather is already affecting buildings and other infrastructure in the US and around the globe. Sweltering heat can cause materials to expand, melt, and degrade. This summer, highways in Texas and Utah buckled under triple digit heat due to expanding concrete. In Phoenix, high temperatures have seen steel plates and iron girders expand . Last year, portions of an asphalt runway in London literally melted from extreme heat. And near San Francisco, railroad tracks warped and twisted during a heatwave which even caused a train derailment and injuries. 

Solutions to Combat These Problems

New Construction Tech for a Changing World

In the years to come, as the weather gets more and more volatile, companies will need to come up with innovative solutions and technologies for future construction. This can come in the form of preventative measures, like using green materials and technologies to lessen carbon output. But, companies and cities will also have to utilize new building practices and materials that can stand major heat and stay standing in extreme weather events. 

Green Materials

In an effort to not worsen the climate crisis and to try to reverse course on construction’s historically environmentally unfriendly ways, (the construction industry accounts for 38 per cent of total global energy-related CO2 emissions) many companies have chosen to use green materials for their construction projects. Luckily, there are so many green building materials available right now that can make a big difference in carbon output:

Solar

Solar energy is “the most renewable form of energy existing today,” and produces zero emissions, improves air quality, and can reduce water output from energy production. This is likely why solar is the most popular green technology available today for use in both commercial and residential projects.  Solar panels are incredible (especially in sunny areas) for reducing the need for traditional electricity and gas. On average, one 10 kW solar roof saves around 4 tons of carbon each year. Plus, they can greatly reduce your energy bill. In fact, “a solar panel system is projected to enable commercial settings to reduce energy costs by about 75%.”

Smart Glass

Electrochromic Smart glass, or dynamic glass, dynamic glazing, and smart glass, is a new sustainable construction technology. This high-tech glass basically blocks heat from the sun from coming through windows through a coating that causes “electric signals to slightly charge the windows to change the amount of solar radiation it reflects.” Similar to transition lenses in glasses, the windows tint based on the brightness and heat of the sun. Electrochromic Smart glass can not only make you more comfortable throughout the day, it can significantly improve energy efficiency in a home, office, or commercial space by reducing the use of HVAC systems.

Cool Roofs

Cool roofs essentially use materials that reflect heat away from your roof. This helps keep your building cool and reduces the need for air conditioning. Cool roofs can be made from a variety of materials including solar panels, tile, metal, clay, slate and even plants.

Other Materials

There are many other innovative sustainable materials out there. Some of these materials can be alternatives to common construction materials like mycelium in the place of concrete or recycled materials instead of traditional insulation. Other materials like organic paint, recycled plastic, sustainably sourced wood, and bamboo, especially when used in combination with one another can have huge positive impacts on the environment.

*This section contains excerpts from my article on sustainable construction materials

Prediction Technology

In an uncertain future, one of the best tools that construction companies can use is prediction technology. This can include technology that keeps track of time, materials, equipment, and weather conditions. These kinds of tech applications can help with figuring out and reclaiming  “the operating margin otherwise lost to the extreme weather conditions.” They can also help companies keep track of the weather, mitigate material and monetary loss, and keep their workers safe from various hazards.

Future Construction in a Warming World

According to Professor Amit Bhasin of the University of Texas at Austin via an NPR interview, As the climate changes, “designs that were intended to handle a certain range are now slowly hitting their limits.” This means that as we move further into a warming world, we will need to rethink our current engineering and construction framework. This is especially true in areas that will experience extreme heat. 

In the future Bhasin asserts, “Wisconsin designs are going to start looking like Texas. Texas designs are going to start looking like the Middle East. And the Middle East designs are going to push the envelope to have more and more engineered systems towards higher temperatures…”  

Practically, this means that construction professionals will have to consider ways to make their projects more resilient to weather extremes. For residential and smaller commercial projects, this can mean adopting climate-resilient building practices. 

Climate-Resilient Buildings

Based on a report by UNEP called “A Practical Guide to Climate-resilient Buildings and Communities,” climate- resilient buildings are essentially structures designed to keep the worsening climate at bay. Essentially, they are are built with both green building methods and creative solutions to brunt the force of weather disasters and extremes as well as every-day high and low temperatures.

Heat

By 2050, it is estimated that 1.6 billion people will be regularly exposed to extremely high temperatures. In cities, it is vital that designers build to cool. This can be done by planting more shade-producing plants and establishing green spaces. Buildings should be designed to be in the optimal orientation away from the sun and with the best ventilation. Green roofs, heat reflective materials, and solar panels can be used to deflect heat and keep structures cool.

Cold

For buildings in extremely cold climates, capturing heat in a variety of ways is important. This can be done with heat-insulating roofs, walls, and ceilings as well as double-glazed windows. New buildings should be designed to be orientated towards the sun and should be painted dark colors to absorb heat. Green roofs, which are essentially living roofs made with soil and plants can keep homes warm during the winter and cool during the summer.

Droughts

Saving water is vital in areas impacted by droughts. There are several water efficiency technologies for construction including rainwater harvesting, dual-plumbing systems, and greywater reuse. Rainwater Harvesting collects rainwater and stores it in cisterns to then be used for potable and non-potable purposes. You can install a dual plumbing system, which uses non-potable recycled water in one set of pipes and regular potable water in drinking-water pipes. Similarly, greywater reuse uses the same system as dual plumbing, except the source of the water is from rainwater instead of the local water authority. Using these methods in commercial projects can greatly reduce water consumption.

Strong Winds

Climate change is expected to worsen storms like cyclones and hurricanes which produce extremely strong winds. One way to address this problem is to design aerodynamic roofs. In some cases, building spherical shaped roofs is the best option in extremely high-risk areas. Otherwise, roofs can be made with central shafts which reduce “wind force and pressure to the roof by sucking in air from outside.”

*This section contains excerpts from my article on sustainable construction materials.

Future Construction Projects Will Have to Consider the Climate

In just the next five years, the temperature is expected to break even more heat records. In fact, the “average from 2023 to ’27 will almost certainly be the warmest for a five-year period ever recorded.” And as we’ve seen, with a rising climate comes bigger and more frequent extreme weather events. For the construction industry, this means that engineers, architects, and designers will have to start adapting quickly. It will take collaborative innovation and new sustainable technology to keep our infrastructure intact… And we should probably start sooner rather than later.

 

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