There is a strong call for more energy-efficient and resilient buildings as the frequency, intensity and severity of natural disasters increases with global warming.

We are observing more extreme examples of people and infrastructure being underprepared as global temperatures rise. This includes significant deaths during the heatwave in England attributed to blackouts and unsuitable cooling systems, and extreme bushfires and flooding displacing many across Australia.

So with the impacts of climate change getting worse how do we prepare our infrastructure to be more responsive to changes in climate?

The Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions, refers to ‘climate resilience’ as the ability to prepare for, recover from, and adapt to the adverse effects of fluctuating climate conditions.

The expected long lifespan of most buildings means their capacity to adapt to an ever-harsher climate is very limited, and means they are most likely ‘locked-in’ an energy efficient design that could quickly become unsuitable or inefficient. This static approach to construction means that a building may be energy efficient in present climate conditions but may not maintain optimal efficiency if unpredictable or previously unseen weather conditions arise.

Infrastructure therefore needs to be more resilient to the shifting climate conditions.

According to UNSW Canberra PhD candidate, Mehdi Gholami Rostam, ‘dynamic climate-adaptive design’ could be the answer to futureproofing buildings to climate change and address the ongoing energy crisis.

What does a climate-adaptive building look like?

According to the Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction, in 2020, 28% of total global energy-related CO2 emissions were from the operation of buildings.

“There are solutions to the energy crisis such as using renewable energy resources,” Mehdi said.

“The most secure and lasting remedy lies in transforming our lifestyle, adopting more responsibility and moving towards constructing more energy efficient and adaptive infrastructure.”

Dynamic climate-adaptive design is a framework that enhances the opportunity of fulfilling resilience, ensuring buildings can accommodate to future alterations in the climate.

One example of an existing climate-responsive design – that is considered ‘kinetic architecture’ – is the Al Bahar Towers in Abu Dhabi.

The Al Bahar Towers have a special design that allow the shading to adapt to solar radiation, reducing the need for energy-draining conditioning during the hottest parts of the day. Source: Karen Cilento, "Al Bahar Towers Responsive Facade / Aedas"

While the outward ‘mashrabiya’ inspired design looks impressive, the façade plays an important role in the building’s adaptive energy efficiency.

The unique design acts like an external curtain around the building, programmed to open and close based on the position of the hot sun.

It is estimated that this design reduces solar gain and glare by 50 percent, significantly reducing the building’s need for energy-draining air conditioning.

Mehdi says the Al Bahar Towers is a good example of building design that responds to the present-time climatic fluctuations in Abu Dhabi.

However, what if climate conditions fluctuate in a different way in the future? How will the building’s energy efficient design respond to those changes?

This is where dynamic climate-adaptive design can be integrated.

According to Mehdi, buildings that dynamically adapt to climate variation during its lifetime are the most prepared for future conditions.

The ability to update, sustain or enhance their designated energy performance makes dynamic climate-adaptive design a unique approach to addressing fluctuating weather.

Assessing future climate change impacts and adaptive design should go hand-in-hand

To ensure a building has climate resilience, its design needs to be prepared for all future climate conditions. Climate change must therefore be taken into consideration to ensure infrastructure is sustained and upgraded to reach optimal performance under all conditions.

“Climate change has the potential to negate the benefits of current conventional energy designs.”

“Buildings need to thrive under new and constantly changing climate boundaries,” Mehdi said.

In a recently published paper, Mehdi found that a dynamic climate-adaptive building design schedule has the potential to reduce energy demand by 23 percent on average over a span of nearly 80-years.

UNSW Canberra researchers tested a dynamic climate-adaptive design for a two-story building based in Canberra. Source: Mehdi Gholami Rostam

Using a simulation of a two-story residential building in Canberra, the researchers explored how a building could be constructed and updated over time to maintain optimal efficient energy use in response to changing weather stimuli.

Modifications to the case study included examples such as shading patterns, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning set points, which were adjusted based on the forecasted climate conditions.

“Buildings under such a concept are more prepared for future harsher climate conditions and can update their state to sustain or even enhance their designated energy performance over their entire lifetime,” Mehdi said.

“Dynamic climate-adaptive design is therefore a significant step forward to addressing the energy crisis and preparing our infrastructure for climate change.”