The future of the Midwest includes hazardous heat, and most of our homes are not ready
By Holly Edgell / Midwest Newsroom
Sept. 15, 2023, 5 a.m. ·
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As temperatures start to cool in September, it might be easy to forget the scorching heat of just a month before. In middle to late August, parts of the Midwest experienced a streak of “feels like” temperatures of more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
In one 48-hour period, the Centers Disease Control and Prevention reported record numbers of people suffering from heat stroke, heat exhaustion, fainting and other heat-related illnesses at emergency rooms in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska.
Such heat can be deadly, said Peter Thorne, an expert on the impact of climate change on health at the University of Iowa.
“People have different susceptibility to heat,” said Thorne, whose Thorne Lab conducts advanced environmental health sciences research. “Heat stroke, for example, kills more people every year than does air pollution-induced asthma in the U.S. or other respiratory effects of climate change.”
About a year ago, a research and technology nonprofit called First Street Foundation released its “extreme heat belt” map. It shows that within about 30 years, Americans across the Midwest and parts of the South will face heat indices (or “feels like” temperatures) of 125 degrees or higher with greater frequency.
Justin Glisan, Iowa’s state climatologist, worries about what more hazardous heat days will mean for humans, livestock and farms.
“That stretch of days we saw in August is kind of what it's going to look like in the middle to late 21st century if we look at the global climate model projections,” Glisan said. “The infrastructure that we have now is not built for where we are, and it's definitely not built for where we're going.”
A big concern in that infrastructure is our homes, the places we rely on as havens from extreme heat.
“The scientists have been very clear,” said Alice Hill, a senior fellow at the Center on Foreign Relations and an expert on the impact of climate change. “This is in our future. It's occurring now, and they are still telling us more will come.”
Hot in here
On 100-degree days, a 100-year-old house may not feel as cool as you’d like – even with the air conditioning on full blast. Glisan and his family, which includes a newborn, live in such a house.
Glisan worries about days when the house cooks so much that it doesn’t have time to cool down for the baby’s needs.
“If you can't cool off during the nighttime hours, that's where you're really starting to perpetuate those daytime high temperatures,” he said.
Designers and architects say houses and apartments are vulnerable to extreme heat for a variety of reasons. Whether old or new, a structure may not be airtight at its seams and roofline or may be on a lot without trees and other vegetation. Even dark exterior paint colors and orientation in relation to the sun can make a difference to inside temperatures.
Researchers, architects and designers around the region are working on ideas and plans for sustainable housing that is climate resilient – in other words, dwellings that do not pump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from air conditioners and provide energy-efficient havens from the heat and other dangerous impacts of climate change.
Elements of a sustainable or “green” structure include building materials as well as HVAC, water and power systems that will emit less carbon dioxide during construction and throughout the life of the building.
Hongxi Yin, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, is on the front lines of this type of net-zero design and research.
“My drive is to develop research and teach toward sustainable building,” said Yin, who was the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certified expert on green community development from China.
Yin said that the construction and operation of houses and buildings – often called the “built environment”– account for about 40% of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. All of that CO2 makes the planet warmer, scientists agree. A house that’s built sustainably and uses little or no energy for heating and cooling is a house that has less impact on the climate over time.
Curtis Goben also studies sustainable design. He is an architect with Architects Alliance in Jefferson City, Missouri, and is active in the American Institute of Architects. The institute has made sustainable design a priority through a program called the AIA 2030 Commitment with a “set of standards and goals for reaching net-zero emissions in the built environment.”
“We look at what the client wants, what they can afford and what their priorities are. And we help,” Goben said.
But planning and implementing buildings with climate change in mind can be complicated in Missouri and other states.
From rural counties to urban areas, building codes do not support climate resiliency in construction.
According to most definitions, building codes set minimum requirements for construction and everything that goes with it: plumbing, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC); natural gas systems and other elements. The codes are there primarily for the safety of the home and whoever lives in it.
Goben said progress toward widespread, sustainable home-building is stymied by a confusing and uneven system of building codes as well as a lack of forward-looking codes that incorporate sustainability and resiliency features.
In Missouri, for example:
“There is no statewide code,” Goben said. “That means various cities and municipalities operate under a wide range of different codes.”
Like Missouri, Kansas lacks a statewide building code for residential construction, leaving decisions to local jurisdictions.
This means a house in a Missouri or Kansas town can be constructed under 2018 building codes, while a similar house next door is built under much less stringent codes – perhaps from 2012. All else being equal, Goben said, the houses may have different prices because one is built with cheaper materials that meet the requirements of the 2012 code. It’s all allowable by laws in those states.
Nebraska’s Urban Affairs Committee is in charge of implementing building codes. Legal counsel Elsa Knight said updates to codes happen through legislation. She said an attempt to update Nebraska’s building codes to the 2021 standard set by the International Code Council died last year, after opposition from lobbyists and legislators. The ICC provides updates every three years, but adoption is voluntary in the United States.
Around the country, AIA is lobbying lawmakers to implement consistent, statewide and updated building codes. Basically, the organization wants states like Missouri and Kansas to adopt one statewide code.
“At the state level our goal is to help, propose and fight for legislation that benefits not just the profession but our clients,” Goben said.
He declined to provide the names of Missouri lawmakers who are open to AIA’s lobbying efforts. The Missouri AIA and both political parties in the state did not respond to interview requests about lobbying.
In fact, there is scant evidence in the public domain –including media reports– of lawmakers in Missouri, Iowa, Kansas or Nebraska stating their support for updated building codes that require sustainable practices and materials. A handful of lawmakers have come out against climate-friendly and energy efficient measures.
A common argument from developers and builders is that more stringent building codes, like those the AIA advocates, drive their costs up – costs that are then passed on to homebuyers.
When Des Moines adopted 2018 building codes (statewide, Iowa follows 2012 and 2015 codes), a cross-section of opponents shared concerns that stricter rules would drive up prices. In Omaha, a coalition of businesses involved in home-building has been meeting with public officials to discuss how to tackle the building code conundrum.
(The Midwest Newsroom requested an interview with the National Association of Home Builders for this article, but a spokesperson declined.)
When it comes to building for hazardous heat and overall climate resiliency, Goben acknowledges that costs are a deterrent to many developers and builders.
“For instance, the AIA, we want carbon emissions reduced by 2030,” Goben. “Well, that rolls into new regulations. And if that's the case, we need to revise our codes and put in more stringent codes that require us to have more efficient HVAC systems.”
Often, the more efficient and the more sustainable the project, Goben said, the higher the costs.
“We have clients that sometimes want to do better than what the code is,” Goben said. “But, generally speaking, whatever that minimum is, that’s what everybody follows.”
Under Missouri laws, that minimum standard building code could date back as far as 2009.
“So even if the state adopted a uniform code, that doesn't mean they'll adopt the newest code. They probably won't. They'll probably adopt a later version of the code, so that it's a baseline minimum,” Goben said.
Goben said Jefferson City, Missouri just updated its codes from 2015 to 2018 standards set by the ICC.
“And that's actually a pretty large shift for a city to do that,” Goben said. “You have to have councils. You have to have special groups. You have to have some committees developed so that you can review it with contractors, architects, engineers. Everybody, you name it, has to be part of the process.”
That process has a fundamental flaw, said climate change expert Alice Hill.
“These codes are primarily based on past data, past meteorological information. And that means out of date,” Hill said, “because they are calling for buildings to be constructed for a climate that no longer exists, much less the climate that we will see in the near future in several decades’ time.”
That future, according to findings shared at the 2021 United Nations climate summit, will likely feature twice the number of heat waves we currently endure, with global temperatures projected to rise about 2 degrees Fahrenheit by mid-century.
Hill said the fact that the U.S. does not have a national climate adaptation plan leaves Americans vulnerable to climate change.
“Not having a view of how all of society will work together to build resilience has left the federal government vulnerable to making decisions that don't reflect the priorities of having agencies work together to make it easier for communities to access federal funds,” she said.
Such a plan could include mandating national building codes – essentially replacing the current confusion of state, county and municipal construction rules.
In Missouri and other states without a uniform code, Goben said: “There's no governing agency or entity that can enforce a (state) code that is adopted already. That's wild and weird if you think about it.”
When professor Hongxi Yin and a team of Washington University students took their concrete house to a sustainable building competition in 2017, they were in it to win it. Their design incorporated walls made of prefabricated concrete slabs.
But something happened on the way to the top prize at the Solar Decathlon in Denver: The team did not finish in the required time, failing to install the required heating and cooling system by the deadline.
That’s when, Yin said, the team observed something remarkable: Their design and materials kept the house, dubbed CRETE, at an even temperature for an entire week.
“Our house turned out to be the most comfortable one – without heating and cooling,” said Yin. “And, what we found is it’s because the concrete provides so much thermal energy, so much energy storage.”
Yin said the concrete shell stored energy from the sun and released it over the course of an entire week, keeping the temperature inside even. Built from six large precast concrete panels, CRETE also had oversized gutters that provided shade to further support cooling. The house, reassembled back in St. Louis, stands in stark and innovative contrast to the more traditional stick framing construction system.
The process of manufacturing concrete does emit carbon dioxide, but Yin said those emissions are offset by concrete’s positive attributes. Its thermal mass means that on hot days, the walls can absorb the heat of the sun, keeping the inside relatively cool. In the
evening, that heat can be released back into the night air.
CRETE was built on a budget of about $500,000. At 995 square feet, that’s far more expensive than the average price for a similar house in the Midwest, which is around $200,000.
Yin said higher initial costs pay off in lower energy bills. Plus, a concrete house will last for at least a century, compared to the 70-year life cycle of the commonly used stick framing method.
Dwellings like CRETE may not be a solution in the present. Building codes and costs would have to adapt to make subdivisions filled with concrete houses a reality.
Most families are looking for affordability, however, not necessarily sustainability, climate change and infrastructure expert Alice Hill said. And developers have their own priorities.
“A developer has an interest in building houses at the lowest cost possible,” Hill said. “So the developer really doesn't want to have the added cost of resilience.”
Goben, the Missouri architect, said true resiliency is still a niche market.
“Generally speaking, it’s those who pay more money for larger homes who tend to want to improve their efficiency,” he said.
He said many architects grapple with making climate-resilient homes affordable.
“How do we still move forward with trying to make efficient designs? And how do we also make sure that we don't make homes not affordable for those that really need affordable housing?” Goben said.
The sweeping climate law that President Biden signed last summer includes nearly $1 billion for low-income multifamily housing to become more energy-efficient, water-efficient and resilient to extreme heat and climate disasters.
“Our mission is to make sure that low-income people are participants in what we believe is going to be one of the biggest climate-focused projects across this country,” said Marcia L. Fudge, Housing and Urban Development secretary.
Initiatives in the Inflation Reduction Act include the Green and Resilient Retrofit Program, which will pay for owners of low-income housing to install rooftop solar panels, heat pumps and other climate-friendly upgrades.
Thorne, from the University of Iowa, believes the climate provisions in the law will be game-changing.
“And I'm hopeful that they are not just transformative, but are institutionalized so that they're not going to flip-flop depending upon who happens to be sitting in the White House,” he said.
Hill is not sure these programs funded through the IRA will be enough to protect us from the climate extremes to come.
“Some of those, like solar panels, are based on energy efficiency, and that does build resilience,” Hill said. “But (IRA) is not a resilience program.”
Hill said the country needs massive amounts of investment and currently lacks the infrastructure to make climate-resilient investments wisely.
“We don’t have publicly available data that would inform, for example, a part-time mayor in a small community about what their risks are, and what the choices could be for how they could better prepare their residents for what's coming,” she said.
Without a national plan, Hill said preparing all types of homes for extreme heat and other climate change fallout will require imagination.
“The social scientists tell us we are not very good at assessing future risk. We tend to assess catastrophic risk based on whether we ourselves have personally experienced it,” she said.
Similar to CRETE, experiments in building for the future are happening around the country. Many sustainable developments are designed to meet specific climate change challenges like stress on the power grid, flooding and tornadoes.
The most obvious examples of sustainable or “green” design and building are often public buildings. For example, the new Lawrence Public Library in Kansas boasts an array of sustainable elements including recycled building materials and efficient heating, cooling and water systems. In fact, Lawrence has committed to climate-friendly practices in public construction projects.
Researchers and architects in Arizona, with its already scorching climate, are developing promising models for sustainable and climate resilient housing. However, as the Arizona Republic found, the state faces a similar quagmire to the Midwest: confusing and outdated building codes, high costs, and what Diane Pataki, a professor at Arizona State University, describes as inertia.
"We know there are better ways, but we still tend to do the same things, build buildings and plant trees in the same way. That whole approach needs to change," Pataki told Arizona Republic reporter Joan Meiners.
Yin and Goben agree with Pataki. Scaling up construction for climate resilience and sustainability on a national – or even state – level means getting consumers, developers, builders and governments to work from the same blueprint.
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