Jo da Silva, Director of Arup’s International Development team, delivered the 9th Brunel International Lecture at the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) on Monday 21st May. Her theme was ‘Shifting agendas: response to resilience - the role of the engineer in disaster risk reduction’.

The context for her talk was that in 2010 alone 300 million people globally were affected by natural disasters such as floods, storms, droughts and earthquakes, and the number of people vulnerable to these types of events in cities in the developed and developing world is projected to reach 1.5 billion by 2050. This is largely due to increasing urbanisation and the impacts of climate change.

Given this, the ICE is calling for a new approach to managing risks and hazards in the built environment. An approach that places a priority on creating resilient communities and cities able to respond and adapt to changing circumstances and disruptive events, if and when they occur. To achieve this requires: a more holistic understanding of risk; taking a systems perspective; encouraging a new culture of safety; recognition of the value of collaboration and partnership and the development of appropriate strategies. ‘Future proofing’ is about integrated planning, design and engineering.

In the UK, built environment professionals including architects and engineers are getting to grips with this paradigm shift in design and management of our built environment. The projected impacts of climate change are a key driver. In the UK we may be less exposed and vulnerable to natural hazards than some countries but we have extreme weather events and climate change projections to address.

It is four years since the Climate Change Act 2008 made the UK the first country to have a legally binding long-term strategy to cut carbon emissions as well as adapt to the impacts of climate change. There has been a considerable amount of activity during this time.

In 2010 the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) launched its ‘Design for Future Climate’ competition aimed at multi-disciplinary design teams working on ‘live’ building and masterplan projects in the UK. Approximately 50 projects have received funding to assess climate related risks such as flooding, overheating and water scarcity in order to develop appropriate risk reducing strategies. The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) are disseminating outputs from these projects to inform and guide architects and engineers.

We must not underestimate the impact of Bill Gething’s report ‘Design for Future Climate: opportunities for adaptation in the built environment ‘published two years ago by TSB. In it he identified key design challenges and explored how to interpret the scientific climate data for building design projects. He addressed issues around thermal comfort, flood risk management and the treatment of water as well as issues of structural design and construction.

In a parallel and related universe, the first UK Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA) was published by the government in January 2012. This identified 100 main climate change risks across 11 key sectors, including the Built Environment, and analysed their likelihood, scale of consequence and urgency of action required. In response, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) are now leading on the National Adaptation Programme (NAP), working across sectors and professional silos to increase the UK’s resilience to climate change. Multi-sector and multi-disciplinary engagement and knowledge sharing are absolutely vital. Defra are working closely with the Department of Communities and Local Government (CLG) and the Environment Agency (EA) on the Built Environment aspects of the NAP. This involves identifying the costs and benefits of adaptation strategies, and highlighting existing policies, standards and regulations which may help or hinder adaptation action. The EA recently launched their ‘Climate Ready’ support service which provides practical guidance and tools to enable more ‘climate risk aware’ decision making.

The Modern Built Environment Knowledge Transfer Network (MBE KTN), which Arup is a part of along with the Building Research Establishment (BRE) and the Construction Industry Research and Information Association (CIRIA), is working with these organisations to ensure the UK construction industry benefits from the 50 projects and that they feed into the design and delivery of projects. There is a strong business case for a more resilient UK built environment.

Managing complexity and uncertainty is challenging and completely ‘future proofing’ our built environment is impossible. However the information and ideas needed to ensure we create more resilient built environments that work for people and business ARE out there. Good planning, design and engineering skills are essential to deal with the increasing risks posed by natural hazards both in the UK and abroad. UK based architecture and engineering firms have plenty of these skills. We just need to inform ourselves of the risks and work in a more integrated way on the right strategies, in the right places.

Author Polly Turton is Senior Climate Consultant at Arup

9th Brunel International Lecture: ‘Shifting agendas: response to resilience - the role of the engineer in disaster risk reduction’ by Jo da Silva, 2012

Design for Future Climate: opportunities for adaptation in the built environment ‘ by Bill Gething, 2010