Climate change: More than heat waves and hurricanes

Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc across New York City in 2012, causing around $65 billion in damage and killing more than 150 people. Two years later, on the other end of the state, the “Snowvember” storm dumped 7 feet of snow on parts of Buffalo, destroying roofs across the region and causing 14 fatalities.

These two events suggest that building design in New York State needs to shift to address varying weather patterns caused by climate change, according to the Resilient Buildings Lab, a research group in the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning.

The group is hosting a symposium — “From Sandy to Snowvember” — today at UB to convene academics and practitioners to discuss climate resilience. They’ll also present initial research results from a grant funded by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).

“The buildings we’re building now are going to face a very different future because 100 years from now there’s real potential for the climate to have shifted dramatically,” says Nicholas Rajkovich, PhD, assistant professor of architecture at UB and one of the lab’s lead researchers.

“People are thinking about how to reduce carbon emissions but they’re not necessarily thinking about how buildings need to respond to the changing climate,” adds Rajkovich.

The effects are many. Rising sea levels could flood coastal areas of New York. More heat waves might create the need for air conditioning high in the Adirondacks. Insect migration might result in more termites in New York. All of this, researchers say, could significantly impact homes, schools and places of work and worship.

The symposium features several guest speakers, including Rosetta Elkin, an assistant professor of landscape architecture in the Harvard Graduate School of Design; Terry Schwarz of the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative; Brendan Kelly of L&S Energy Services; and Rachel Minnery of the American Institute of Architects.

The goal is to address three key questions:

  • How do built environment professionals respond to a changing climate?
  • How is the building stock in New York State adapting to climate change?
  • How is resilience being addressed by architects and other built environment professionals?

Weather events like Snowvember and the October Surprise Storm, which hit Western New York in 2006, caused significant damage because of the wet, heavy snow created by temperatures that hovered near the freezing point, Rajkovich said.

“If you imagine that the winters are slowly getting warmer, over time you’re going to have more winters that are right on the edge of that wet, heavy snow,” he said.

“Everybody thinks climate change is heat waves and hurricanes, but it’s more than that,” Rajkovich explains. “It’s also these wet, heavy snow events. You might not attribute snow to climate change but it really could be an important issue for our region.”

In addition to obvious consequences like increasingly intense and more frequent storms, climate change is causing gradual shifts over time, such as changing soil moisture and subsiding buildings, Rajkovich notes.

And it affects all parts of the state.

While events like Hurricane Sandy are certainly devastating, the continual flooding that occurs across the Southern Tier and other rural parts of the state also take a toll. “Although fewer buildings get damaged, it’s a greater percentage of the total building stock,” he says.

With funding from NYSERDA, UB is developing a resilient buildings document that will:

  • Determine how climate change will impact buildings
  • Calculate the potential economic costs of those impacts
  • Identify strategies for adapting New York’s buildings for a changing climate

While a few initial research results are being shared at today’s symposium, the complete results are expected to be released to policy makers, builders, building managers and homeowners this spring.

In addition to NYSERDA, other project partners include L&S Energy, Weather Analytics and the UB Regional Institute.

For more information on the symposium, visit

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