Extreme Environmental Design / Part 2

By Khaled Abou Alfa • 20th of February, 2022

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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