Adapt buildings to climate change, Iowa analysts urge

Record number of science faculty and researchers sign statement

Ulrike Passe (left), associate professor of architecture and director at the Center for Building Energy Research at Iowa
Ulrike Passe (left), associate professor of architecture and director at the Center for Building Energy Research at Iowa State University, and Jerry Schnoor, co-director of the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research at the University of Iowa, answer questions during a news conference Thursday on climate change and building design. Their presentation was at the downtown Cedar Rapids Public Library. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Being reactive is being proactive when it comes to helping address climate change through building practices.

And University of Iowa and Iowa State University researchers said in a presentation Thursday that evidence never has been clearer that communities must use every tool they have.

“Our scientists indicate that forecasts project that future rainfall will increase over a large extent of Iowa, like the Iowa-Cedar River basin where we’re currently located, and could double as soon as 2025,” said Jerry Schnoor, co-director of the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research.

“The climate change that we’re experiencing has severe implications for our buildings,” Schnoor said — like more lightning threats.

Failure to amend building practices and codes by — for example — integrating rain screens, larger gutters and steeper roof slopes — could harm Iowa’s population and economy.

“We must start now to adapt our built environment, including buildings and flood mitigation systems, to this changing climate,” Schnoor said.

Shifts can be seen out any Iowan’s window lately, with incessant and abnormal September and October rains swelling rivers and soaking fields, according to Schnoor and his colleagues.


But it also is evident in newly-reported climate science, which indicates five-day heat wave temperatures in Iowa eventually will increase by about 7 degrees for the average year and by 13 degrees once per decade, compared with heat waves in the 20th century.

Scientists also project Iowa’s strongest rainfall events covering as much as a third of the state will double in intensity — measured in total daily rainfall — my midcentury at the latest.

“In 1991, climate scientists said that we would have a much warmer 21st century, and wetter weather, with more intense and severe precipitation. They were right,” Schnoor said.

The 2018 Iowa climate statement — signed by a record 201 science faculty and researchers from 37 Iowa colleges and universities — comes the same week the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report indicating temperatures are likely to rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius between 2030 and 2052 if global warming keeps its current pace.

That makes strategic design, construction and retrofitting imperative — so buildings can withstand hotter, more humid and wetter conditions while also curtailing environmentally-harmful development practices, according to Ulrike Passe, ISU associate professor of architecture and director of the Center for Building Energy Research.

“Buildings are a very good opportunity because strategies we can use in buildings to reduce fossil fuel consumption are also the strategies which help us to adapt to a warmer climate,” Passe said.

Climate-aware building strategies include better insulation, controlled ventilation and dynamically-shaded windows in strategically-placed buildings oriented to maximize south solar exposure. Dark surfaces can trap heat, while white surfaces can reflect it.

Shade trees can lessen air conditioner use, and communities can invest in runoff mitigation to reduce flooding effects. Bioswales, rain gardens, urban forestry and permeable pavement also can reduce flooding, according to Passe.


Eastern Iowa communities have made changes since the catastrophic flooding of 2008 wiped out much of central Cedar Rapids and portions of the UI campus.

UI officials on Thursday reported lessons learned from 2008 have significantly mitigated the risks of this fall’s drenching rains.

“The UI has an up-to-date Flood Emergency Response Plan that details the protective steps we execute building-by-building with each increase in river flow levels,” Don Guckert, associate vice president of facilities management, said in a news release. “For the river flows we are currently anticipating, these are generally minor and invisible protective steps we take such as plugging drains that could back up on us as the water rises.”

But compelling broader climate-related building design and construction practices will take more work, education and advocacy, according to Dale Todd, a Cedar Rapids City Council member who attended Thursday’s presentation.

“I am an elected official and a developer that works with architects a lot, and I can tell you that regretfully this is a conversation that simply is not occurring in the halls of government,” he said. “And it’s one that very seldom happens between developer and architect simply because of the cost.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158;

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.