Heatwaves in the UK: what can we do to cool down our buildings?

Material choice, building design and construction play an equal role in determining whether a building will stay cool in hot summer temperatures or overheat. With the increasing number of heatwaves affecting the UK, there is an urgent need to adapt our buildings to stay cool, particularly as many city buildings are designed for the opposite- to retain heat.

The UK Committee on Climate Change has reported that as the number of heatwaves increase, the amount of heat-related deaths could almost double with infants, individuals with chronic health problems and the elderly most vulnerable. High temperatures not only reduce worker’s productivity, it also affects children's learning which can cause long-term implications. In addition, the heat often leads to sleep deprivation, raises the risk of foodborne illnesses, and the effectiveness of medications are also affected at temperatures over 25°C. These issues pose one question: what can we do now to quickly cool down our buildings?

Air conditioning is the obvious choice but these energy-guzzling systems use a lot of electricity which ultimately makes our environment even hotter. Similarly, fans use energy, and often make individuals dehydrated, especially when left on at night. Sustainable long-term measures include using reflective surfaces which absorb less heat, for example, painting buildings white, incorporating white fabrics into the home and using solar film on windows.

Closing curtains to keep away the sun’s rays is an effective strategy, but if curtains are made from dark fabric, it is advised to place a reflective white material between the curtain and the window to protect the dark fabric from heating up.​ External shading of windows is also a benefit and likewise keeping windows open at night increases a building’s ventilation, although, this has drawbacks due to outdoor pollution, security and noise. Additionally, keeping indoor plants and bowls of water inside helps keep the air cooler due to evaporation.

Good insulation inside and outside a building can additionally protect a construction overheating. A more costly, long-term strategy is using external wall insulation as this prevents heat from entering a building and also can improve a building’s construction energy performance. In addition, improving the ventilation in a construction increases airflow and allows hot air to escape the building.

To learn about adaptation measures for various building types, click here to visit the Community Resilience to Extreme Weather (CREW) project’s toolkit.

Top photo credit: Richard Gadsby

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