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Society’s most vulnerable won’t survive more heatwaves without better designed homes

The latest amber heat warning issued by the Met Office for later this week provides another reminder of the health risks of soaring temperatures.

Back in 2018, a cross-party committee of MPs published a report forecasting that heat-related deaths would treble to 7,000 a year by 2050 unless the government acted. Our homes are not always safe havens: the report found that one in five homes during overheats at levels that impose critical risk to human health and life during heatwaves.

Many of us will have experienced our homes getting unbearably hot in last month’s heatwave. But those in underprivileged areas are most at risk: recent analysis of data estimated that six million people live in places at risk of higher heat across Britain during the summer months, and that those in deprived areas are more than twice as likely to live in places which are significantly hotter than more affluent areas.

Heatwaves are the latest events to highlight Britain’s vulnerability to climate change and global warming. They also potentially risk enhancing inequalities since volatile energy market prices, differences within the quality of accommodation and limits in access to comfortable spaces can impact vulnerable groups the most.

Much of this is the result of living within what are known as urban heat islands – metropolitan areas with dense buildings and road networks which absorb and retain heat and so are significantly hotter than areas with shade or green space. These tend to be poorer neighborhoods. A Loughborough University report published last year found that overheating was greater in households living in social housing with low incomes, while a study published last month by the University of Manchester found that, after factoring in social deprivation, Birmingham and areas in London like Newham and Tower Hamlets were top of the list of the UK’s most vulnerable neighborhoods to extreme heat.

People living in these areas are often housed in buildings which have been poorly designed, lack effective ventilation strategies or have been designed without acknowledging potential incidents of overheating. Residents invariably have to resort to DIY measures to stay cool, such as putting bottles of frozen water in front of fans or even sheltering in their bathroom because it’s the coolest room. Extreme heat also exacerbates health issues for those living with conditions like asthma or heart disease, and those who may be unaware of the performance of their properties prior to moving in. This is doubly concerning when we consider the impact that heatwaves may have on the NHS and emergency services.

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Policymakers have been ignoring the warning shots on extreme heat for too long. The Climate Change Committee, the Government’s own advisors, say that more than half a million new homes liable to overheating have been built in the UK since it first raised the issue almost a decade ago. A positive step has now been taken with the Government introducing new regulations in terms of overheating in buildings, but this only happened in June this year, too late for the July heatwave, the current one or any in the near future.

Construction and sustainability experts have an obligation to advocate and strive for change, too. Building professionals need to design dwellings which are cool in summer as well as warm in winter. Fitting shutters and shading devices could help address solar gains. Installing living green walls and roofs can cut the amount of heat soaked up by buildings, as can using less glass or retrofitting buildings with lighter colored and more reflective materials – both of these can reduce the number of urban heat islands we already have, too.

In terms of broader urban design, constructing buildings at different heights can establish shade and facilitate breeze. Spacing out buildings more will also avoid creating more urban heat islands. Consideration of alternative building materials for pavements so that they don’t absorb and radiate heat will also help.

We need to create more green, open spaces that help create more shade and a feeling of cooling. The historic challenge we face is that most urban neighborhoods were built long before we even knew about climate change. Design of our city spaces was based on largely aesthetic reasons – when plane trees were widely planted in wealthy boroughs and the center of London in the 18th century, for example. In contrast, deprived areas are more exposed to the full intensity of the sun. Public bodies should invest more in providing better communal public spaces: the Camden Highline in London – modeled on the New York City’s High Line – is one example, but we need more.

We know extreme heat is no longer a rare event and these incidents will only intensify in the future. We need to reflect on what we have learned and transition to a more sustainable future. The latest warning is a reminder that we can’t afford to wait any longer.
Tassos Kougionis is a Director at McBains, a property and construction consultancy

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