Designing homes for high temperatures

How can we design homes for the extreme temperatures of the future?

Author: Richard Hyams

07 May 2020

As weather patterns are increasingly unpredictable,  it will become clear that the homes we are building  are not designed for the extreme conditions that climate change will cause. Complaints about overheating in new-build homes have already  put the issue high on the political agenda.

"Just meeting sustainability regulations will not be enough"

However, just meeting sustainability regulations will not be enough. The government is therefore taking measures such as consulting on a Future Homes Standard and assessing the implications of Part L of the Building Regulations. Many property developers and architects' practices are already developing tools to design homes that mitigate the effects of worsening weather without compromising net-zero goals but we need to work together. This will help to provide the sustainably built and climate change-resistant homes of the future. In this way, targets set by bodies such as the London Energy Transformation Initiative (LETI) and Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) can be met.


Overheating represents a larger issue. The UK press has voiced doubts about the viability and safety of new builds for occupants, especially the elderly. One report cites the deaths of nearly 900 pensioners in heatwaves in the UK last year, and another the prediction that this figure will rise to 7000 by 2050, with many deaths occurring indoors.

In a future where the weather will become increasingly extreme, it is not enough simply to design energy-efficient homes that meet net-zero guidelines: we need to prepare our structures for the long term. This will make them resilient to the extremes of a world in which the effects of climate change are fully felt, and safer for their occupants as a result.

While the mean temperature across the UK rises, the opportunity to act to prevent further warming decreases. In order to meet the net-zero carbon targets of 2030 set by both RIBA and LETI, all new buildings in the UK need to comply with strict design regulations for energy efficiency and carbon emissions by 2025. The next five years offer a window to implement fundamental changes in the way we design and construct our buildings.

National government should take the lead. The draft revisions to Part L are not helpful, and LETIs response to the consultation identified key issues with the proposed regulations.

Local government bodies across the UK have sought to take the lead and this ambition should be supported by national policies.

To begin with the Zero Carbon Hubs proposed Fabric Energy Efficiency Standard should be retained and improved. This would ensure new builds are optimised for heating and energy efficiency. Other factors that should be included are:

  • performance metrics are measured, such as energy use intensity in kWh/m2 /year, together with prescription energy usage
  • setting goals for improving energy consumption as well as better monitoring
  • the introduction of kWh/m2 /year targets with operational compliance
  • the introduction of whole-life carbon assessments that determine the total effects of a home on the environment over decades

With these points integrated into documents such as Part L, both national and local government could use their influence to accelerate the change needed in the property, architecture and design sectors to bring even our most ambitious sustainability goals within reach.

Although other modifications are required, methods for designing and building are improving, including our ability to optimise the way those buildings interact with the challenges of a changing environment. Airtightness targets and performance will continue to be a key parameter in measuring build quality. These need to be managed alongside better ventilation strategies to control indoor air quality and temperature as climate change continues to cause more extreme wind speeds and temperatures.

Many lessons can be learned by looking to regions such as Europe which have been managing higher summertime temperatures for many years. A priority on providing shading as well as cross-ventilation in dwellings will be vital in designing them to respond to climate change.

Furthermore, factors such as direct solar gains - sunlight falling on the building - can be lessened through better glazing or special glass treatments, as well as the shade offered by trees or other structures. Overheating risks can also be reduced by increasing the thermal mass of a structure, which allows it to better absorb and disperse heat throughout the day and night.

"Heat is not the only climate change challenge; flood risks and stronger winds are also steadily increasing"

But heat is not the only climate change challenge we must consider; flood risks are also steadily increasing along with stronger winds. Therefore, sustainable urban drainage systems (SuDS) will also be high-priority issues. Both heat and flooding can be better managed by the increased presence of trees in urban areas, which provide a natural cooling and evaporating effect. The selection of appropriate tree species and the provision of their necessary management to ensure better survival rates needs careful consideration by local authorities. Green roofs offer an excellent example of the way these design methods can be practically implemented. They are already shown to be effective at reducing heat retention while providing habitats in urban areas where spaces for parks and ponds are limited.

The team at research-based architectural practice astudio has always made sustainability and long-term preparedness of buildings a top priority. It believes that the design and development community have a responsibility to use climate change as an opportunity to take a wider, strategic look at how we design housing and the spaces between them in the UK. The firm is committed to making progress towards sustainability and net-zero goals. Its team explores and implements new and existing design strategies in all its projects; astudio has also employed a dedicated sustainability engineer who consults with the team from the earliest design stages.

The organisation and its research and design team are pioneering the use of emerging technology. This includes artificial intelligence and machine learning the better to anticipate how extreme temperature and weather changes will affect our structures. At the same time, it is making design suggestions on how to better shape them for optimum thermodynamics and ventilation control.

There is still further work to be done to meet even the more lenient goals set by government and advocacy groups. The industry needs to see further changes in the way it approaches every stage of construction and produce buildings that are powered by renewable energy rather than fossil fuels, have a low energy requirement, and use a highly insulated building fabric.

Sustainability goals need a strong foundation of regulatory initiatives and incentives. Combined with industry-wide recognition of our responsibilities, both to the UK and internationally, these will make our structures safer and better prepared for the future.

Richard Hyams is director of astudio

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