Weather report: Designing for climate change

As I write this, Texans are assessing the damage from Tropical Storm Beryl, both the West Coast and Southeast of the United States are sizzling under record temperatures, and wildfires blaze from California to Mississippi.

My own North Carolina set a record for the driest June, and for weeks we’ve been suffering under the oppressive heat and humidity we don’t normally endure till late July.

The spring tornado season was one of the busiest on record and forecasters are predicting the Atlantic hurricane season will be similarly active, with four to seven Category 5 storms. (Beryl was an early season Cat 5 hurricane before it weakened and slammed into Lone Star State.)

Extreme weather is becoming the norm.

You probably think about it when planning outdoor activities, but how often do you think about climate when designing for clients? It may be time to make that part of your process.

Earlier this year, the American Society of Interior Designers and the Chemical Insights Research Institute of UL Research Institutes made that point when releasing a report, “ASID Impact of Design Brief: Climate, Building Resiliency & Human Health.”

“Designers and collaborators in the built environment bear the responsibility to improve human health through their work and to consider new strategies in support of building resiliency,” said Khoi Vo, CEO of ASID. “With the increase of extreme weather events and climate change, the interior design profession must be well-equipped to better understand and incorporate resilient solutions into their practices.”

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The ASID report estimates that two-thirds of Americans have experienced extreme weather events, and a New York Times article published this week about disparities in home insurance rates has an illustrative map of the United States showing which parts of the country are most at risk of severe weather, namely, chunks of the West Coast and Mountain West, the Midwest, the Plains and the Southeast — or most of the country. And if you really want to geek out, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has a cool map you can sort by risks for everything from hail and lighting to flooding and winter storms.

We tend to think of extreme weather as destructive major storms like hurricanes, heat waves or blizzards. But there are other considerations: poor air quality from wildfires and ozone; higher humidity levels in heat domes.

All of that represents an opportunity for designers, architects and contractors to help their clients create homes that better withstand the weather and climate threats particular to their area.

I can foresee some in our industry deciding to offer a subspecialty in climate design, much like we’re seeing designers develop parts of their business devoted to vacation rentals or wellness.

Here are some ways you can incorporate climate considerations into your design process:

* Know the risks in the areas where you work. Before you tackle a new project, review that FEMA map I mentioned earlier to identify the most prevalent climate and weather risks for that homeowner.

* Make climate part of your initial questionnaire and client interview. Talk with homeowners about weather risks in their area and what worries them. Expand your “comfort” questions to ask about parts of their home that feel too cold in the winter or too warm in the summer.  

* Use a team approach. Designing climate-resilient homes is most effectively done in concert with architects, contractors and landscape designers, who can tackle the issue through multiple systems and in connected ways. If need be, expand your network of partners to include those focused on sustainable design.

What does designing with extreme weather in mind look like on a practical level? Below are some elements to bear in mind.

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* Create cooling rooms. In areas experiencing more extreme heat, experts suggest designing cool rooms or cool zones within a home. That could mean creating some spaces with fewer windows (or outfitting all windows with exterior shutters) or orienting key living spaces and bedrooms away from eastern and western exposures.

Throughout homes in areas where increasing heat is a concern, consider LED bulbs in light fixtures, energy-efficient appliances, blackout window treatments and (gasp!) ceiling fans. (We know how most designers feel about ceiling fans; this could be a chance for the industry to push for more stylish designs.)

* Improve air quality. As the ASID report notes, “Poor indoor air quality puts nearly 40% of the U.S. population at risk for serious health problems. On average, people spend approximately 90% of their time indoors, breathing 15,000 liters of air a day. Weather and climate disasters impact the built environment and increase chemical and particle exposure to poor indoor air quality.”

From an interior design perspective, this means using natural fabrics, as well as paints and finishes with less off gassing. If you’re working with architects and contractors on ground-up builds and major renovations, encourage homeowners to incorporate whole house air purification and dehumidifying systems.

* Add a generator. Robust whole home generators keep the lights (and devices) running but also can power central heat and air conditioning systems, allowing homeowners to stay comfortable and maintaining the indoor temperature to reduce mold and protect all those fine fabrics, art and finishes your clients have invested in.

* Use the outdoors. Work with landscapers to add trees and shade plants to cool both the outdoors and the indoors. The U.S. Department of Energy notes that roof overhangs, window overhangs, awnings, shutters, blinds, screens, porches and other architectural features can all help to reduce heat gain inside a home. In wildfire-prone areas, collaborate with landscapers to create fire-safe landscapes that enhance the interior design.

* Add safe rooms: Some uber wealthy homeowners are installing safe rooms (or entire underground bunkers) for security from a host of threats, and storm shelters are common in even modest homes in tornado-prone areas like Oklahoma. But safe rooms could have utility in other parts of the country as risk grows of hurricanes, tornadoes and derechos (severe straight-line windstorms). As a starting place, the FEMA has construction guides for safe rooms.

Some of these considerations may feel far afield for designers accustomed to focusing on paint colors and furnishings. But if your goal is to create livable spaces that your clients love, it’s a logical next step to address matters that will allow them to remain safe and comfortable in their homes, regardless of the weather.

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