Climate concerns: key facts for architects

With the changing climate becoming an ever greater issue for the built environment, we look at some of the key facts about climate change that architects should know.


efore air conditioning, architects had to be innovative to help keep buildings cooler during warmer months instead of relying on air conditioning (AC) systems.

Rising global temperatures mean that use of air conditioning systems is predicted to soar within the next few decades. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that there will be a threefold increase in demand for electricity to keep interiors cool by 2050, based on present energy efficiency standards of AC units. For context, this would require as much electricity as China and India currently consume.

Among the 2.8 billion people currently living in the world's hottest areas, just 8% have an AC unit. Provided that living standards in these locations rise in line with predictions, there could be 5.6 billion AC units used worldwide by 2050, which would be an increase of four billion from current figures.

Daniel A Barber, an associate professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design, has been looking to the past to see how architects addressed climate issues in the era before AC. In his book Modern Architecture and Climate: Design before Air Conditioning, Barber covers the time period prior to the Second World War and years immediately following. AC units began growing in popularity during the 1950s.

In data:

Climate ahange and architecture in numbers


The percentage of the world’s CO2 emissions that are from cement as a result of the chemical and thermal combustion processes use to make it, with 4 billion tonnes produced each year. The cement industry will need to make emissions reductions of 16% between 2018 and 2030 in order to bring the sector in line with the Paris Agreement.

2 billion

The number of people living in coastal areas that may be forced to migrate by 2100 as a result of rising sea levels and coastal erosion if suitable infrastructure is not developed in order to make towns and cities adaptable to the changing climate.


The additional labour hours required to construct a standard steel structure in the city of Houston by the end of the century, as a result of the increased number of days with extreme temperatures. On-the-job productivity is expected to decline in areas hit by increased temperatures, with some days likely to make construction unviable, unless alternative technologies are developed.

3,300 million

The amount in litres of additional water capacity per day that the UK will need to find by 2050, according to DEFRA. Water-saving solutions, including those that re-use greywater, are a key part of the solution.


The percentage of the UK’s carbon footprint that is contributed by the built environment, almost half of which is energy that buildings use. In response, the RIBA has launched the 2030 Climate Challenge to help practices meet net zero or better whole life carbon for buildings.

Must reads:

Insightful articles on architecture and the environment

Three things architecture practices can do immediately to help combat climate change

Hattie Hartman lays out immediately actionable steps in this piece for the Architects’ Journal.

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The climate is changing. So must architecture.

Ned Cramer outlines the issues faced by architects in this hard-hitting, US-focused piece for Architect Magazine.

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Design for future climate

A report by the Technology Strategy Board that explores opportunities for adaptation in the built environment, with key actionable advice.

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As the climate changes, architects and engineers need to design buildings differently

Nicholas Rajkovich, assistant professor of architecture at the State University of New York, lays out the challenge.

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