With much of the globe witnessing unprecedented heat waves and wildfires, the realities of climate change are undeniable. But how will this impact residential construction? How might builders consider the impacts of climate change on building resilience moving forward? This week we talked to NAIMA Canada Senior Technical Advisor Gary Sharp, a civil engineer with more than 30 years of experience in the building industry. We spoke about why residential construction may have reached an inflection point based on climate change and what that could mean for the future of home building.
Climate Change Is a Fact
As a former home builder, R-2000 inspector, air tightness tester and course instructor, Gary has seen significant challenges in the residential building industry. Those changes will likely pale in comparison to the monumental shifts that need to occur in residential construction to combat the impacts of more severe weather events caused by climate change.
What he sees next is an inflection point for residential housing: the need to decarbonize and simultaneously boost resilience because of more destructive storms.
“Climate change is happening. Flooding, high winds, heavy snowfall events, high (and low) temperatures, and wildfires are all driven by climate change,” Sharp said. “This is an issue builders need to be aware of and watch for code changes resulting from these events.”
Residential construction codes are developed according to current events, so as these damaging events occur, they are factored into the code. As each iteration of the residential construction code has been adopted, the requirements set a higher bar. With more frequent and damaging weather events come the increased likelihood of code changes to adapt to changing conditions.
“Keep in mind that code is a set of minimum requirements,” Gary noted. “Builders can choose to build to higher standards.” Many homebuilders are doing just that. Increasingly there’s a push for higher performing, more energy-efficient and resilient construction, including Net Zero and Passive House.
This week’s brutal global heat waves are shattering records, testing grid resilience, and ramping up the urgency of addressing decarbonization and climate change globally. Gary believes that the realities of climate change present an opportunity for builders to adapt and fortify construction to build more resilient residences.
“I encourage builders to look at the lessons learned during extreme weather events they are experiencing in their areas,” he said. “For example, losing the garage doors in a tornado often means losing the garage and any rooms or the roof above it. Making changes for securing the garage doors or stronger doors may be a short-term cost for long-term gains and a feature to be marketed to potential buyers.”
There’s evidence to back up the assertion that consumers are interested in resilience. A 2019 National Survey of Consumer Interest in Resiliency report from Home Innovation Research Labs found that consumers are willing to pay extra for a new home build to minimize the effect of natural disasters. The amount varies depending on the perception of risk, the type of natural disaster, and the income level of the homeowner. However, there’s broad interest in resilient construction.
Storm Clouds: Not Only About Climate
Gary knows home builders in Canada and the U.S. are confronted with a myriad of issues, including labor shortages, increased prices in materials, supply chain issues, and adapting to changing codes and standards. Ultimately, he believes that the next two years will bring some level of stabilization to the residential building industry.
“Currently, fuel prices are driven by sanctions on Russian oil and the lack of production in North America due to climate change concerns,” he said. Unless this changes, fuel will likely remain high. Another concern is labor. Although trade schools are seeing increased enrollment, it will take a while to get people fully trained. “All in all, I’m not seeing any immediate breakthroughs. Two years from now is likely an appropriate time frame for things to get better.”
Adding to those concerns is a housing shortage, or more precisely, a shortage of housing that is affordable. This means that fewer buyers will qualify to buy new homes. Builders have responded by constructing more single family residential rental homes, a more attractive, less costly option for some buyers.
Adapting and Innovating
“The housing industry has a lot on its plate. We need to make housing more energy efficient to combat climate change. This means more insulation, improved airtightness, better windows and doors, improved mechanical systems, and likely, some power generation on-site with PV panels.”
Gary noted the increased threat posed by wind, wildfires, and extreme heat as critical when considering how housing must adapt more quickly to climate change realities.
“These conditions may differ in different regions but must be addressed by all builders. With housing demand up, consumer affordability challenged, and the industry still recovering from supply chain problems driven by COVID, it’s essential that builders adapt in response to these issues,” Gary said.
“I’m always impressed with the ingenuity, resilience, and creativity of the building industry when adapting to changing conditions,” Gary states. “It seems to me that this is the time for the housing industry to shine. We have many smart, ingenious people in this industry. We will adapt and overcome.”