I recently read a piece in the New York Times that shocked me. The article was about the fires that raged all over Greece last month and it posited the idea that “Athens could become Europe’s first uninhabitable capital city.” In the wake of the fires, the Greek government stated that the climate crisis is upon us. Joe Biden said the same thing just this week after visiting hurricane-ravaged parts of New York and New Jersey.
There is no question that the climate is already changing, just as there is no question that extreme weather events will continue to become both more frequent and more severe. We as architects need to step up and use our skills to protect the public from the elements. Such protection comes in various forms. We can advise on where to build, selecting sites that do no harm and maximize energy-saving opportunities; what to build, designing buildings are resilient, sturdy, and high performing; and finally we can design with an eye to the conservation of natural resources through careful management of energy usage, energy sources, and material selection.
At this point cost is no longer a barrier to building to high performance standards. We are seeing more and more studies that show a leveling out of the cost of Passivehouse compared to that of a conventional building. There is a recent study from the UK showing that the capital cost upcharge is 0.9% for a new build and 0.04% for a deep refurbishment, thus making the case for pursuing Passivehouse in every instance.
The New York Times article really rattled me. Athens is my hometown, and so the idea that it could become uninhabitable hit close to home. I was in Greece this summer and I experienced the extreme, extended heat waves. It was brutal, and for many, life-threatening. In my view, the way things are headed, any building that is not designed to the airtightness, insulation and ventilation standards of a Passivehouse will be increasingly inadequate as a shelter to protect its inhabitants from the extremes of heat and cold that are quickly becoming the new normal. Our shelters now need to do more: they need to consume less and protect more. Fortunately we have the know-how, but does our society have the will to make these big, necessary changes? Time will tell, but time is running short.