By William Larson
Much has been written about climate change, yet it is still difficult to pin down exactly what it means for our personal way of life as well as the future of our industry.
Most people accept that things are changing. Weather patterns are different and less predictable. Coastal development is at greater risk from tidal surges. And many thousands who have been touched by devastating wildland fires, floods, and other disasters, understand the future may not be as predictable as the past.
There is little room for doubt about the need for change. But what does this mean for those in the construction sector?
The answer is not so simple. It means that how we build, where we build, and what materials we build with is about to change.
Here are the simple facts. Weather patterns are changing, and catastrophic disasters from floods, wildland fires, cyclones and periods of bitter cold have become new realities driving the need for adaptation. Climate change affects agriculture, food production, transportation systems, and living conditions in our cities and towns.
That’s just for starters. Lives have been lost, thousands of homes have been destroyed, and untold billions of dollars in property damages have been incurred by people, communities and businesses ill-equipped and financially unable to cope with these events.
This means that the rule book for how we rebuild for the future must also change. Existing building codes, existing land use plans, existing emergency response systems simply won’t do.
Our buildings must be more resilient. Our critical infrastructure must be able to withstand more extreme environmental conditions. Our cities and towns must be better able to rapidly recover from disasters, and we must be better able to restore critical civic services such as transit, health care, emergency response capabilities and communications following catastrophic events.
This will not be easy. Our cities and towns are becoming larger and more densely populated and our capacity to provide housing and other critical infrastructure is growing faster than our already tight budgets and increasingly outdated “business as usual” approaches will permit.
So where to begin?
The first steps begin with us. We cannot afford to wait for someone else to solve these problems. There is a need to change public awareness, as well as policy, of the need for more durable and resilient buildings and infrastructure.
We must work within the science, with the facts and means, to engage consumers, investors and public officials about the need for greater resiliency planning. This means we must design buildings to be more structurally resilient, more energy-efficient, and built with due attention to minimize flood, fire, as well as seismic risks.
It also means urban planning measures such as building codes, transportation planning, zoning regulations, land-use plans, water supply management, green infrastructure initiatives, health care planning, and disaster mitigation efforts must also adapt to the changing environment.
What we build with must also change. Concrete, the building block of modern societies, must also become more competitive, less carbon-intensive, and more easily deployed. Already, changes are affecting how we produce and use concrete. Prefabrication, modular construction, and design/build approaches are changing the very fabric of the industry.
There are no easy answers to designing and constructing more sustainable and resilient buildings. For example, laying waste to our forests – the true lungs of our planet – to build high rise structures with mass timber is not an environmentally sane solution for dealing with climate change.
Adaptation to preserve our way of life and to protect the safety and well-being of our citizens will be an on-going challenge for many years to come. We may have choices in how we adapt, but there is no option to adaptation.
For those of us who spend our days designing, building and replacing the places where we live, work, and play, there is no greater challenge.
This is but a portion of what climate change means to us.
William Larson is Vice President Marketing at CalPortland. He also serves as a Director of the Northwest Cement Council and is Chairman of the Pacific Northwest Building Resilience Coalition. This article was originally published on the Building Resilience Coalition website.