With a particular focus on coastal areas
Climate change is a global challenge that affects every aspect of our lives, including the built environment. Buildings are not only sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but are also vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as extreme weather events, a rise in sea levels, flooding, heatwaves and droughts. These effects can cause significant damage to buildings and infrastructure, disrupt essential services and supply chains, increase operational and maintenance costs, reduce property values and revenues, affect human health and well-being, and increase social inequalities and conflicts. In order to mitigate these impacts, buildings and urban areas are now increasingly being future-proofed for climate change. In this article, Nora Zhang of TERAO looks at the importance of future-proofing buildings in China’s populous coastal areas.
How climate change affects buildings in coastal areas
Coastal areas are home to more than half of the world’s population and account for a significant share of the global economy. However, they are also among the regions most exposed and vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), coastal areas are projected to experience more frequent and intense storms, higher sea levels, increased coastal flooding and erosion, saltwater intrusion and changes in precipitation patterns.
These impacts can have serious consequences for buildings in coastal areas, depending on their location, design, construction, use and maintenance. Some of the potential effects include:
- Typhoons: These are intense tropical cyclones that can bring strong winds, heavy rain, storm surges and coastal flooding. Typhoons can damage buildings by causing structural failures, roof collapses, window breakages, water infiltration and mould growth. They can also disrupt power supply, communication networks and transportation systems.
- Heavy rain: This can cause flash floods, landslides and soil erosion that can undermine the foundations and stability of buildings. Heavy rain can also increase the moisture content and humidity levels in buildings, leading to deterioration of materials and indoor air quality.
- Heatwaves: These are periods of abnormally high temperatures that can increase the cooling demand and energy consumption of buildings. Heatwaves can also cause thermal stress and discomfort for the occupants, affecting their health and productivity. Moreover, heatwaves can exacerbate the urban heat island effect, which is the phenomenon of higher temperatures in urban areas compared to rural areas due to human activities and the lack of vegetation.
- Strong winds: These can exert high pressure and force on buildings, especially on tall or slender structures. Strong winds can cause vibrations, deformations or cracks in buildings, or even their collapse. They can also damage external elements such as cladding, facades, balconies and solar panels.
What is future-proofing buildings and how important is it in China?
Future-proofing buildings is the process of designing and constructing buildings that can cope with the current and future impacts of climate change, while minimising their environmental footprint and enhancing their social and economic benefits. Future-proofing buildings can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve energy efficiency, enhance occupant comfort and health, and increase resilience to natural disasters.
According to a report by the World Bank, China has the largest population living in low-elevation coastal zones (LECZs), which are areas less than 10 metres above sea level. The report estimates that by 2050, more than 145 million people in China will be living in LECZs, accounting for 11 per cent of the country’s population. Moreover, China has the second-largest gross domestic product (GDP) at risk from coastal flooding in the world, with an estimated annual loss of United States dollars (USD) 79 billion by 2050.
Future-proofing buildings is especially important in China, where rapid urbanisation and economic growth have led to a huge demand for new construction. By some estimates, almost half of the world’s construction will take place in China in the coming decade. Therefore, China needs to ensure that its buildings are sustainable and can meet the future needs of its people and the planet.
Key concepts and principles of future-proofing buildings
Future-proofing buildings involves applying a holistic and integrated approach that considers the entire life-cycle of buildings, from planning and design to construction and operation to renovation and demolition. Revolving around the concepts of climate adaptation and climate mitigation, future-proofing buildings requires adopting a multi-scale perspective that considers the interactions between buildings and their context, such as the site, the neighbourhood, the city and the region. Furthermore, future-proofing buildings entails incorporating a participatory and inclusive process that engages all relevant stakeholders, such as owners, developers, designers, contractors, operators, users, regulators and communities.
Some of the key concepts and principles of future-proofing buildings include:
- Climate risk assessment: This is the process of identifying and evaluating the potential hazards and impacts of climate change on buildings and their occupants and users. Climate risk assessment helps to prioritise the most urgent and relevant adaptation measures and strategies for each building project.
- Climate-responsive design: This is the process of designing buildings that respond to the local climate conditions and optimise their performance in terms of thermal comfort, energy efficiency, water conservation, indoor air quality and natural lighting. Climate-responsive design also involves using passive design strategies, such as orientation, shading, ventilation, insulation and landscaping, to reduce the reliance on mechanical systems and enhance the adaptability of buildings to changing weather patterns.
- Low-carbon construction: This is the process of constructing buildings in a way that minimises their GHG emissions and environmental impacts by using low-carbon materials, technologies and practices. Low-carbon construction also involves reducing waste generation, recycling and reusing materials, and implementing green procurement policies.
- Resilient operation: This is the process of operating buildings that can withstand and recover from the shocks and stresses of climate change by ensuring the continuity and quality of essential services and functions, such as power, water, communication, transportation and security. Resilient operation also involves implementing plans for preventive maintenance, emergency preparedness and contingency to cope with potential disruptions and damages.
- Adaptive renovation: This is the process of renovating existing buildings that can improve their performance and functionality in response to changing needs and expectations of occupants and users, as well as to evolving climate conditions. Adaptive renovation also involves enhancing the flexibility and modularity of buildings to allow for future modifications and expansions.
How to apply future-proofing building concepts and principles in China?
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for future-proofing buildings, as each building project has its own specific characteristics, challenges and opportunities. However, some of the general steps and recommendations for applying future-proofing building concepts and principles in China include the following:
- Conduct a comprehensive climate risk assessment for each building project, using reliable and updated data and tools, such as the Climate Change Risk Assessment Tool (CCRA) developed by China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development and the World Bank.
- Follow the relevant national and local standards, regulations and guidelines for climate-resilient and low-carbon building design and construction, such as the Technical Guidelines for Climate-resilient Building Design (GB/T 51366-2019) and the Green Building Evaluation Standard (GB/T 50378-2019).
- Apply the best practices and lessons learned from existing projects and initiatives that demonstrate successful examples of future-proofing buildings in coastal areas, such as the Sponge City Programme, the Low-carbon City Programme, the Eco-City Programme and the Green Building Innovation Park.
- Seek technical and financial support from various sources and programmes that promote and facilitate future-proofing buildings in coastal areas, such as the China Climate Change Partnership Framework, the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery, the Green Climate Fund and the International Finance Corporation.
Future-proofing buildings for climate change, particularly in coastal areas, is a vital and urgent task for China, in order to protect its people, assets and environment from the current and future impacts of climate change, as well as to support its sustainable development and green transition. As our planet faces escalating environmental challenges, it is incumbent upon us to prioritise both climate adaptation and mitigation strategies in the construction and maintenance of buildings along vulnerable coastlines. Future-proofing buildings requires applying a holistic and integrated approach that considers the entire life-cycle of buildings, adopting a multi-scale perspective that considers the interactions between buildings and their context, incorporating a participatory and inclusive process that engages all relevant stakeholders, and applying both general concepts and principles and specific ones that are most suitable for each building context. By doing so, China can create a built environment that is comfortable, safe, healthy, efficient and durable for its occupants and users, as well as for the surrounding communities and ecosystems.
TERAO is a global building sustainability engineering consulting company involved for 30 years in energy efficiency, carbon emission and green building engineering, as one of the pioneers of energy-saving and sustainable buildings. TERAO operates on the whole building life-cycle, from design (green building specifications, carbon emissions calculation and reduction, energy efficiency design and calculation, among others) to operation and maintenance (energy/carbon audits, comfort improvement, certifications in operation, among others).
 Climate change widespread, rapid, and intensifying – IPCC, IPCC, 9th August 2021, viewed 13th September 2023, <https://www.ipcc.ch/2021/08/09/ar6-wg1-20210809-pr/>
 China: Country Climate and Development Report, World Bank, October 2022, viewed 20th September 2023, <https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/server/api/core/bitstreams/35ea9337-dfcf-5d60-9806-65913459d928/content>