Extreme Environmental Design

By Khaled Abou Alfa • 20th of February, 2022

While he was completely bald on top, his hair around the back and sides flopped past his ears, resembling big ears. His upper lip adorn a thick moustache. By the time of Povl Ole Fanger’s ascension as the grandfather of thermal comfort, he had developed a befittingly soft, friendly and comfortable look to match. Across the 1950s and 60s, Fanger carried out extensive research experiments. First at the DTU (Denmark Technology University) and then at Pennsylvania University. This research culminated in his 1970s book Thermal Comfort: Analysis and Applications in Environmental Engineering and with it established many of the equations, rules and concepts still in use as part of many national and international regulations. Part of the book’s lasting impact was the introduction of the PMV (Predicted Mean Vote) and the PPD (Predicted Percentage Dissatisfied). These indices and concepts provided engineers the tools to help create spaces that gave the largest possible percentage of a given group’ a comfortable thermal experience. It did this by taking gender, age, clothing, circadian rhythms, humidity and many other factors, into the equation. Fanger would continue his life’s work of understanding the marriage of human psychology and engineering to the betterment of our internal spaces, until he died in 2006.

These rules gave the framework that would guide regulations and engineers for the coming decades. We would seek to create indoor climates that understood how the humans inside buildings would feel and interact with their space. These rules came at a time when the technology was becoming more available that allowed our indoor environment to be controlled and regulated. In warm and humid climates this meant conditioned air. In colder climates this meant better indoor heating. Over time this new blanket of comfort went from being a privilege to becoming an expectation. It is this expectation of complete indoor comfort that contributed to both a different built environment and natural world.

The slow disappearance of vernacular architecture increased the sterilisation and homogenisation of our built world. The tower in Shanghai was now possible and available in Doha and replicated in Toronto. For the most part we sealed our buildings and relied on technology and energy to maintain the artificial environment inside. This came at the expense of the natural world which was (and continues to be) abused and stripped of its resources. This expectation was one of the many pillars of comfort built on the back of using more. More energy. More steel. More sand. More minerals. More coal. More petrol. We created a comfortable reality, one of decadence, at the expense of our planet. We took, but it wasn’t for free. This was all a loan with a very high interest rate. A loan which we all now have to pay the price for.

Action Forced Through Inaction

Conventional wisdom follows that the entities capable of forcing through transformative change necessary to combat climate change, are governments. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), is the body designated to lead this charge and is behind several global pacts indented to tackle the issue of climate change. The Kyoto Protocol (1997) was the first international treaty and a symbol of cooperation between some nations. This had limited impact as the US, Canada and Russia did not sign up, while industrious nations such as China and Brazil were exempt from meeting the target. The Doha Amendment followed in 2002 and looked to keep the pressure on nations, except this time even fewer nations signed up or ratified this agreement into law. As it became clear the previous instruments had done all they could, a different international treaty was negotiated. This time 196 nations signed the Paris Agreement in 2015. Having learnt from previous treaties, to keep nations honest, a reporting system (the enhanced transparency framework, ETF), is meant to go into operation in 2024.

This reality, of a slow hunkering international body, is at the core of the frustration felt and demonstrated by thousands of activists around the world. These treaties and targets are the primary instruments we have established and pinned our future on. The fact remains that regardless of what is said or agreed, global emissions continue to increase and with that global temperatures follow. 25 years of summits where (generally) well meaning targets are set, headlines are then captured in the news cycle and we move onto the next headline. In short, these summits haven’t changed our course, and it is arguable whether they have even slowed down our general trajectory.

For decades many governments have been reticent to act, as real action takes courage, treasure and often comes at a high political price. These pledges and targets set in the far and distant future, 2030, 2050, 2070 are missing the point. We are well past the time of thinking about the future impacts of climate change. Life is already difficult for many around the world, and that number is only set to increase in the coming decades.

Our collective habits have changed completely across the last 100 years, which in part has brought us to this point. The world will be forced to make uncomfortable tradeoffs between the status quo and what it needs to ensure our prosperity and wellbeing. Change will need to start from within, as we wake up to our new reality. If we don’t understand this and act of our own accord, then change will be rammed down our collective throats. First by nature itself and then by governments. This will not only change the way we live, but where we can live. Before we get to that point, we will do what humans do best, which is try and technology’ ourselves out of this hole.

Uncomfortable Solutions

We design our built environment to protect us from the elements. We base our designs on historical data. Understanding that there is variance in the climate. We look to seasonal change. We look at 10 year highs and lows. We consider 50 and 100 year events and make acceptable trade offs knowing and accepting that some discomfort might occur. This is all acceptable as we are safe in the knowledge that these events are the outlier cases. There is little economic or engineering sense in oversizing elements that cover events that will happen once every 100 years. Furthermore, different geographies have always required different design solutions to address the types of climates they exist within.

Soon these outlier conditions will not be as rare as we initially considered. What has always been a cold region may suffer from heatwaves and visa versa. Extreme weather patterns and conditions will become a more common design consideration. We will fight any attack on our established personal comforts - granted there will be some well meaning but rare exceptions. We will look to build evermore resilient and adaptive buildings. New stock will likely lean into bigger design margins, to account for a wider range of conditions. Older building stock will be the playground for more adaptive designs. Engineering effort will attempt to shift those original trade offs into becoming part of the core. This will be achievable in geographically fortunate locations. Many areas across the world will not have such opportunities.

Coastal Waters

The melting of the ice caps continues to gather momentum. The complete eradication of the ice will likely not happen in our lifetimes, but that is little consolation. Year on year water levels are rising. Currently measured in mm, soon it will become more prudent to measure the changes in cm instead. Those nations with the engineering means will look to replicate the blueprint developed and honed by The Netherlands.

The Netherlands has been using dikes, storm barriers, pumps, and adaptations to manage water across their territory. It is all considered and engineered with the knowledge that it could, one day, all lie under water. This is not a theoretical exercise, but a lesson hard learnt. In 1993 and 1995, floods threatened regions surrounding the Rhine delta and lead to the evacuation of nearly 200,000 people. As a result, The Netherlands were forced to identify sacrifices to the gods of water, in the name of protecting larger communities. They introduced the Room for the River programme which constituted the country’s offerings. Humanity’s perseverance in the face of unseeing odds is best exemplified by the Overdiepse Polder. The Overdiepse Polder was unique in that the existing inhabitants worked with the government who developed elevated provisions that the farmers to operate their farms unaffected, most of the time. The Netherlands demonstrates what is possible in areas where flooding is a constant looming threat. They have laid out a blueprint, that addresses the main challenges, while defining the limits and shortfalls of these now established approaches.

The solutions are tauntingly available for countries to emulate, if they can rise to the challenge, like the water around them. This type of engineering comes at a high price, both in treasure and in an even more valuable commodity, time. The same engineering prowess afforded to the Dutch may not be unattainable to the countries impacted. Asian countries look to bear the brunt of the exposure to rising sea levels. Millions across India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Indonesia. This is not limited to Asia with large regions of North and South America also under risk.

Aside: The IOM (International Organisation for Migration) has developed a series of maps across the world highlighting the major environmental risks likely within each geography. While the Netherlands is included in the higher risk countries, it does not take the existing flood risk measure already in place.


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was created to provide governments with clear scientific data and mitigation options to tackle climate change. Published in 2019, their special Climate Report has an extensive section on desertification, land degradation in drylands. This accounts for approx. 46% of global land area and home to 3 billion people. These areas that already offer difficult conditions for prosperity are at risk of becoming uninhabitable. The reasons cascade and spiral, from soil erosion, extreme variance in weather patterns (too little or too much rain) and, increasingly higher temperatures. Climate refugees and environmental migrants will become more common. At the end of 2020, around 7 million people across 104 countries and territories were classified as environmental migrants. There is a lot of headroom between 3 billion and 7 million.

The more (financially) capable countries within these dryland areas will have the resources to manufacture and maintain many of their environments, these will remain the outlier cases. Where there is space for movement, this will be the preferred solution’, resulting in mass migration. This will in turn continue the myriad of challenges to the physical and mental welfare of those displaced. Temporary (which can become semi-permanent) construction will come in high demand to handle the incoming torrent. The UNHRC has established minimum standards for refugee camps and settlements. These result in tents that last around one year. Their shelter design catalogue documents the types of construction, across budgets, materials, size and functionality. It offers sobering details ranging from basic shelter through to the requirements of establishing a basic form of home.

It is unlikely that our natural world will make a dramatic course correction over the coming years or even decades. Things will get worse before they get better. Change is inevitable, but likely not the kind we desire. At the heart of this change will be the need to reconsider our comfort expectations. From the energy we use in our homes, to the affordable transport we rely upon. Until we get to this point, many will be forced to change their way of life. We should all be prepared.


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