Addressing Climate Issues Locally in 2021

Some of the best solutions to climate are through sustainable construction and design

By Katherine Austin 

Think globally, act locally. What does that mean for those of us developing, designing and building housing across the US? Last year was one for the record books. If you live in the US no doubt you have been hit by either drought, fires, smoke, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes or blizzards on top of dealing with a pandemic. It can be overwhelming, especially if looked at globally. Like any large undertaking it helps to start by taking manageable steps. I think we agree that climate change is real. Even with the most optimistic predictions, chances are our climate will not get any better than what we have today. I am a strong believer that every challenge offers an opportunity. Each of us can take concrete steps in our communities to address these issues.

So what kinds of steps would make a difference? That of course depends on where you are and what significant issues you face. In Oregon, we have experienced the most destructive wildfires ever recorded. In Bend our air quality was hazardous for 8 straight days in 2020 with AQI over 500, the worst in the world. Everyone stayed indoors if they could. Were their homes tightly sealed? Did everyone have HEPA filters on their HVACs? Who had ERV systems with filters to bring in clean air? Beyond design needed to meet urban/wildland interface codes, there needs to be a focus on tight sealing with HEPA filtered heat exchangers as a way to both address this and market the health benefits to your buyers. Should we re-build in areas devastated by fire? People displaced want to go back home if they can. Should we seriously look at increasing density in our city centers and stop sprawling into wooded areas? It’s not a popular option but perhaps it is the ethical one. 

Similarly in areas prone to flood, as sea levels rise and storms intensify should we re-build only to be flooded again? Is building on the edge of waterways and oceans really what we should be doing? How much are we willing to try to defeat Mother Nature? While staying out of the most flood prone areas we can take measures to help make our homes more resilient. We can build homes with water resistant materials like concrete or ICFs on the first floors of these homes and additionally use foundation vents that are designed for flooding, that let the flood flow under and through foundations with minimal negative impacts. Designing a finish floor at least 2’ out of the anticipated flood level will save that home.  

Certainly tornados and hurricanes are the most difficult to design for. Increasing the engineering for wind resistance of the roof assemblies and foundation anchors can help. Years ago when Hurricane Andrew hit Florida, about the only roofs left in place were on affordable housing developments that were required by HUD to have superior construction details. We can learn from that and go above and beyond code and market that as such.

Let’s not forget blizzards and their weight crushing roofs or causing ice dams. We can strengthen the roof systems and add greater underlayment to deal with ice dams. Double roofing systems that prevent heat from escaping and melting snow is another excellent method. For resulting flooding from snow melt, increasing storm water catchment systems can help in the winter as well as during downpours. 

”One of the simplest and most impactful changes may be eliminating natural gas in all new construction and supporting electrification.”

My question is this, is there a way we can work with other professions to try to anticipate future needs and work to help find solutions? Are there ways to partner with biologists, hydrologists, geologists and climatologists to identify threats and mitigate for them now? Examples are rebuilding barrier islands and swamps, freeing channelized waters systems into meandering paths that slow floods? Can we find a way to work with forest management and avoid hazardous locations? So while there are mitigations we can make in building our new homes maybe we need to look further afield to allied professions to address the causes of our natural disasters. One of the simplest and most impactful changes may be eliminating natural gas in all new construction and supporting electrification. The methane that is released and leaked when gas is extracted and transported turns out to be far more destructive a greenhouse gas than Co2. That single change can have a huge impact and it is within our means to enact. Yes it may be outside our comfort zones but we need to think creatively to meet the future.

Katherine Austin, AIA, Architect licensed in CA in 1991 & OR, specializes in Affordable Housing, serves on City of Bend’s Affordable Housing Advisory Committee and AIA OR Bend Section Committee.