5 Ways That Climate Affects Building Design

Published Categorized as Building Design
Affect of Climate on Buildings

Different climate regions come with unique hazards for building design. Building designs must compensate for varying degrees and frequencies of wind, rain, snow, heat, and drought. In general, builders already know creative ways to cope with these challenges and can look to other regions to adapt to unfamiliar conditions.

Here are five ways that climate affects building design:

  1. Windy climates can cause up-lift and racking.
  2. Rainy climates threaten water damage and flooding.
  3. Snow climates affect roofing and heating.
  4. Hot and sunny climates require certain building materials.
  5. Dry climates cause shrinking and cracking.

This article will discuss the five main climate conditions that affect building designs and how to adjust designs to accommodate a shifting climate.

1. Windy Climates Can Cause Up-Lift and Racking

Climates in cold regions, plains, and some coasts receive more days of windy conditions and faster winds. Buildings have to withstand constant pressure and be resistant to weathering over the years from grainy debris.

Two types of winds that building designers accommodate are up-lift and racking.

Up-lift is when the high-pressure wind strikes a pocket of low-pressure on the leeward sides of walls and roofs. This wind causes the building’s interior to compensate for its pressure outward.

Responsive building designers will adjust how roofs attach to the house walls on these low-pressure sides. Hurricane and tornado-prone areas need this the most.

Racking happens when powerful winds strike a building at an uneven angle. These winds destroy roofs, doors, frames, and sidings. While this occurs in tornado and hurricane-prone regions, it also affects exposed, cold climates. Buildings in these areas need higher quality construction and more maintenance.

Compensating for Windy Climates Affecting Building Design

As climate shifts over the decades, the predominant zones affected by a given condition will move too.

One example is the American Plains versus the Midsouth. Tornado Alley used to be in the Plains, and builders constructed shelters and fortified homes to deal with turbulent winds not only in the stormy spring but from the winter arctic blasts.

Now more tornadoes and more of the higher category tornadoes hit the Midsouth, where few buildings have installed the measures the Plains’ buildings have.

Regions affected by racking are also shifting. Some decades have zonal flows where climate conditions follow along latitudes, but other decades have meridional flows. Meridional flows make a more exaggerated sinuous shape, bringing severe winters farther south and more severe summers farther north.

In this case, regions farther south will adapt to the design and frequent maintenance of buildings that places farther north have.

2. Rainy Climates Threaten Water Damage and Flooding

Buildings in rainy climates are at additional risk of water damage through poor connections between walls and roofs. These areas are usually chimneys and plumbing outlets where the caulking fails or the foundation where the soil quits absorbing excess moisture.

Most sealants like caulking expand, desiccate, and erode with time, creating gaps for rain damage. So these areas need frequent repairs or designs that don’t use sealants.

Rain-heavy climates threaten foundations and flood buildings once the soil gets saturated. Sometimes the foundation can even shift. In these environments, builders test the soil type and compensate with materials and angles that help move water around the building.

Compensating for Rainy Climates Affecting Building Design

Moderate regions that become wetter will have to develop similar designs as regions with more experience with the conditions. They’ll need to give more care to chimneys, vents, and the stability of the foundation. Some older buildings lack steel support in the foundation, and soil saturation lets enough water into the concrete for the foundation to crack and shift.

3. Snowy Climates Affect Roofing and Heating

Light snowfall can weigh as much as 15 pounds (6.80 kg) per cubic foot, and heavy snow can weigh 50 pounds (22.68 kg) per cubic foot. Regions like high elevations and latitudes expect snow every year and build according to that added wet weight.

After all, with enough feet on top of a roof, hundreds of pounds can stack over each square foot. Roofs can otherwise sag and collapse. These regions tend to have steeper roofs to both distribute the snow’s weight and to discourage it from collecting too much in the first place.

The plus side is that buildings require less heating because snow provides insulation along the walls.

Compensating for Snowy Climates Affecting Building Design

Like the shift of racking winds coming from meridional atmospheric flows, locations farther south can face more snow than they’ve experienced in many decades.

When this happens, roofs collapse, and the locality fails to deal with the damage or the people suffering. Plumbing and utilities will also be more vulnerable. Building designers will have to be more thoughtful toward roofs and plumbing insulation.

4. Hot and Sunny Climates Require Certain Building Materials

Overly dry buildings can age faster than buildings subjected to a better balance of conditions. Roofs wear down in hot climates more than in the cold.

Attic fans and vents help circulate otherwise trapped air under the roof. The circulation helps wood from drying out. It also moderates the temperature elsewhere in the building.

Colors also matter in hot, dry climates. Darker colors absorb more heat than lighter colors.

Some hot climates are also cold climates, like high deserts. In these regions, buildings have to cope with wide temperature swings that cause building materials to expand and contract, often unevenly. Builders in these regions choose materials that disperse expansion and contraction at resisting deterioration in these conditions.

Compensating for Hot and Sunny Climates Affecting Building Design

Moderate regions transitioning into having more hot conditions will have to change several designs. The temperate climate zones tend not to worry about building color or which materials deal better with extreme temperatures or wetness versus dryness. They’ll have to make more practical decisions during the design process.

5. Dry Climates Cause Shrinking and Cracking

Drought conditions shrink and crack everything from soil to caulking to wood. Shrinking destabilizes buildings and leaves them vulnerable to a switch to wet conditions and seismic activity. Builders deal with drought-prone climates by designing foundations to hold stress in different areas.

Changing Drought Climate Conditions Affect Building Design

If their region is getting dry, building designers will need to look at foundations and roofing in areas like the American Southwest. Some wood is better at dealing with extreme dryness when others crack. Foundations will likely need steel support in case the foundation cracks.


By Giovanni Valle

Giovanni Valle is a licensed architect and LEED-accredited professional and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). He is the author and managing editor of various digital publications, including BuilderSpace, Your Own Architect, and Interiors Place.

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