Extreme heat and the need for high performance housing

By Katie Bartolotta

Posted July 24, 2020


Much needed rain offers some relief following the first Heat Health Emergency of 2020, issued on Monday, July 20. High heat days present serious challenges when practicing social distancing measures. Typically the city would direct residents to cooling centers hosted in library branches or recreation centers. Due to COVID-19 these community spaces are closed but are being opened on a limited basis and supplemented by non-traditional resources including stationary, air-conditioned SEPTA buses. 

Over the past 50 years, we've observed an increased number of extreme heat days in Philadelphia. Globally, all five of the hottest summers on record have occurred since 2014. These record-breaking heat trends are poised to continue without significant action to combat climate change. We know from Philadelphia’s Heat Vulnerability Index that neighborhoods do not experience extreme heat events equally. Some neighborhoods, due to lack of green space and tree cover and the prevalence of dark paving and roofing materials, can be as much as 22 degrees hotter than other neighborhoods in Philadelphia on the same day. 

What’s more, the Philadelphia neighborhoods with the highest heat vulnerability also are home to the most residents with high heat sensitivity, due to underlying heat-health conditions such as asthma. Recent research has shown that an increase in Philadelphia’s tree canopy could prevent nearly 400 premature deaths annually.

The combination of heat vulnerability and sensitivity is further exacerbated by the fact that many residents the neighborhoods most at risk also lack access to air conditioning. Philadelphia overall has among the highest energy burdens (proportion of income paid toward utilities) of any major city in America, so even when air conditioning is available, it is not necessarily affordable. 

The interconnectedness of environmental, social, and economic disparities in the City of Philadelphia highlights why solutions to combat and adapt to climate are critical to achieving a more equitable city. One key solution that is also responsive to the public health concerns of the COVID-19-era is ensuring that every Philadelphian lives in a healthy, energy efficient home. 

Prioritizing energy efficiency retrofits in existing homes is a critical step toward saving money, improving health, and increasing indoor comfort. Energy efficient homes are better insulated, more airtight, and require less energy to operate because there is less outside air getting in and less conditioned air getting out. Proper air sealing and insulation materials also help prevent condensation that can otherwise lead to rot, mold, and mildew, contributing to asthma and other chronic illnesses. 

Existing retrofit programs make only marginal improvements, which then often go unchanged for decades. Philadelphia has more than 400,000 rowhomes, so training a local workforce on building retrofits offers a massive opportunity for both incumbent workers in construction and energy efficiency as well as new workers. 

To reap the maximum energy cost, health, and climate resilience benefits, Philadelphia needs a comprehensive strategy for deep energy retrofits of existing homes. This will require a thorough assessment of the city’s existing homes, cost and financing options, pilot programs, and workforce development needs. Any effort must be an inclusive process that incorporates the needs of Philadelphians including lowering energy costs, improving health, developing workforce opportunities, and insulating residents from the effects of climate change. A strategy must also complement and better leverage existing programs and services for home improvements.

As building professionals, we have a responsibility to adapt our design, construction, and maintenance practices to build resilient homes, schools, and businesses that will meet the needs of all Philadelphia residents today and tomorrow. Not only that, but we must advocate for long term policy solutions that will advance sustainable building design across the industry and create a pipeline for good paying jobs. In the wake of a public health crisis, economic downturn, racial injustice, and a blatant disregard for science, our industry must step up. 


To learn more about the role of architecture, planning, design, and building, in reshaping our world, check out Ed Mazria's keynote presentation from the New Gravity Housing Conference.

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