Emergent technologies and future prospects

No other century has begun with such an awareness of the potential for change and of the uncertainties that underlie that perception. The best we can do is identify the developing technologies and socio-economic trends that are clearly discernible and extrapolate from them. There are some predictions we can make with reasonable confidence and consider the implications for architects and related professions.

There is little doubt that global warming will trigger changes that will fundamentally change the practice of architecture. Already the prediction that global warming will lead to greater intensity and frequency of storms is being realised. It is inevitable that, as heat is built up within the biosphere, this results in the release of energy which powers more extreme climate activity. We have noted examples of the predicted rate of return of the 1 in 100 year storm as currently defined. Newhaven headed the list with a return rate of 1 in 3 years by 2030. The immediate consequence for architects is that design wind loads should be amended to cope with this progressive change and the fact that buffeting will increase in intensity.

Another probability is that extreme heat episodes with occur more frequently. This needs to be considered when incorporating passive solar design and the design of atria and conservatories. At present natural ventilation and the omission of air conditioning is justified on the grounds that cooling is only required for a short period in a year. This may change and mechanical ventilation incorporating some form of cooling will become a necessity such as aquifer or ground source cooling.

At the same time there is a possibility that winters will become more severe due to the weakening or rerouting of the Gulf Stream. Much greater extremes of temperature will have major design implications, both for the stability of materials and the levels of insulation. As fossil fuel prices rise, this will increase the appeal of building integrated renewables plus active solar heating and seasonal heat storage.

The possibility of colder winters adds urgency to the need to tackle the problem of the unacceptable numbers of unfit homes in the UK as outlined in Chapter 10.

Rainfall patterns will change. In the south it is anticipated there will be much less rainfall and frequent drought conditions. This will increase the pressure for water conservation and the harvesting and purification of both rainwater and grey water for use other than for human consumption. The design of substructures and foundations will need to take account of progressive drying out of clay subsoils. In the north rainfall amounts will rise, increasing the risk of flash floods as rivers rise and the surrounding land is saturated. It is unlikely that the Environment Agency will have the resources to provide protection against the prospect of an increasing threat. For example, devastating floods hit Boscastle in Devon in 2004 with 75 mm (3 inches) of rainfall in 15 minutes.

It is inevitable that sea levels will rise. Already there are compelling reasons not to develop below the 5 metre contour at or near the coasts. The predictions of rising levels are becoming more alarmist, with the doomsday scenario of a 110 metre rise if Antarctica melts (Sir David King, Chapter 2). The least we can expect is a rise of 1 metre over the next century due mainly to thermal expansion. The more immediate threat lies in storm surges since a small rise in sea level greatly amplifies the impact of a storm surge. Add to this the fact that the predicted intense low pressure systems can cause the sea level to rise locally by over half a metre, and you have the recipe for serious sea incursion.

This will have an impact not only on where we build but the way we design buildings. In areas which will increasingly be threatened by flooding, one answer could be that new homes should have the living accommodation at least 2 metres above ground level, with garages, workshop, leisure activities below.

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