Architects must take into consideration many different factors when designing buildings. Aside from cost and technical challenges, the specific environment may present architects and engineers with additional issues that can impact the long-term viability of structures and maintenance needs.
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Buildings are heavily affected by their environment, with the climate and natural landscape influencing their design along with any available building materials. The landscape can affect the aesthetic design of a building; for example, those built in coastal areas can be designed with large ocean-facing windows to take advantage of panoramic vistas. Buildings in mountainous areas blend in with their surroundings.
Different environments bring different challenges, with hot, cold, and marine environments all presenting unique technical and design problems for architects. This affects the functional design, ventilation needs, insulation needs, shape, seismic design, building materials, building techniques, and aesthetic design.
This article will briefly explore how different environments affect the design of buildings and the challenges architects and building engineers face when building new structures and maintaining existing ones.
Marine and Coastal Environments
Around 40% of the world’s population live within 60 miles of coastal areas, with an estimated 200 million living in areas less than 5 meters above sea level. Additionally, rivers are historically areas where humanity has settled due to easy access to fresh water for industry, agriculture, and domestic needs, with many of the world’s greatest cities growing up around rivers, coastal areas, and flood plains.
Architecturally, coastal areas have historically been a mish-mash of buildings with different functionalities since the dawn of civilization, with defensive, infrastructural, and domestic structures all being built to serve a variety of societal purposes.
Water is highly unpredictable, with coastal areas and river deltas prone to flooding during tidal surges and storms. It is the responsibility of architects and planners to design resilient buildings which can withstand the worst environmental damage.
High winds are more commonplace in coastal areas than inland, meaning that structures in these locales need to be built to withstand them. If they are not constructed with appropriate building materials, structures can become affected by weathering and storm damage, with lost tiles a common problem in coastal locations.
The salinity of seawater can corrode common building materials. Stone and concrete walls can be affected by salt crystallization, whereas steel supports and reinforcement elements can become rusted by saltwater. This requires regular monitoring and maintenance to avoid structural impacts.
Another ever-present challenge is coastal erosion. Even buildings that were historically inland by several miles can be potentially lost due to coastlines receding, with evidence that climate change is speeding up the process of coastal erosion in some areas presenting additional issues for homeowners and planners.
High temperatures iin arid and equatorial zones can significantly impact the design of buildings and residents' living conditions. Designing and building habitable dwellings is a key challenge for architects and planners in hot countries.
Rising global temperatures due to climate change further complicate the challenges facing the architecture sector. Indeed, a 2021 report from the UK’s Climate Change Committee, an independent adviser, warned that 570,000 domestic buildings in the UK are not resilient enough to rising global temperatures, with 1.5 million planned to be built before 2026 suffering from the same problem.
High temperatures cause health problems for residents, with elderly people and those with certain medical conditions particularly vulnerable. Aside from health impacts, high temperatures can cause structural issues such as stress cracking in walls. 2018’s high temperatures in the UK caused severe soil subsidence, affecting 10,000 households.
Buildings can be heatproofed by selecting appropriate building materials, providing ventilation systems, using passive measures such as blinds and shutters, and even painting external walls in light colors. Buildings in traditionally hot countries have used measures like this for centuries.
Whilst efficient, technologies such as air conditioning are energy intensive, with their use linked to carbon emissions and climate change. Furthermore, proper insulation has the dual benefit of reducing winter energy bills.
Cold environments possess their own unique characteristics and challenges for building domestic structures and infrastructure. There are, for example, logistical problems with transporting building materials, equipment, and workers to remote, cold, and rugged environments. Proper building materials, techniques, and insulation can improve the integrity of buildings and residential health.
Infrastructure such as roads, railways, pipelines, and power plants can experience problems with cold environments, especially if they are built on frozen tundra prone to melting. Rising global temperatures can compound these technical challenges.
Melting permafrost causes problems with ground stability, increasing the risk of landslides and flooding. This causes obvious problems when urban areas and infrastructure are located in these environments, presenting a significant risk to life and economic disruptions.
Additionally, the longer hours of darkness at latitudes in the extreme north or south limit the available construction time, compounding the issues faced by contractors by extremely low temperatures. This makes building structures in these locations difficult and prone to safety issues for workers.
Architects and planners must also consider the impact of new buildings and economic development on the environment. Therefore, a balance must be struck between the needs of local populations and industry, as well as risks to fragile ecosystems and biodiversity. Environmental impacts can be mitigated by new technologies and the efforts of governments, NGOs, and conservation groups.
Different environments provide their own unique challenges for architects and planners, with both the design of new and existing buildings and the residents and users of said structures affected. However, appropriate design, technology use, and regulations can go a long way to ensuring that useable and liveable structures are provided for populations.
Climate change is further adding to these technical and economic challenges, with several environments undergoing profound changes and the instances of extreme heat and weather events increasing year on year. Whilst seemingly insurmountable, architects can plan for the future by designing buildings with extremes of environment in mind.
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References and Further Reading
NJ Architects (2018) The challenge of designing coastal buildings [online] njarchitects.co.uk. Available at:
Kollewe, J & Calverley, T (2022) ‘A lot of challenges’: can housing industry build homes habitable in high temperatures? [online] theguardian.com. Available at:
Hyams, R (2020) Designing homes for high temperatures [online] RICS. Available at:
Carter, M & Stangl, R (2016) Building Design Considerations In Cold Climates [online] wbdg.org. Available at: