The following viewpoint is written by Krissy Govertsen, PhD candidate, interdisciplinary engineering, Northeastern University, and Michael Kane, assistant professor, civil and environmental engineering, Northeastern University.

Temperature extremes, both hot and cold, and other unusual fluctuations in weather patterns, such as drought and sea-level rise, that result from global warming have been described by some climate scientists as “Global Weirding.” Temperature extremes are becoming more frequent and, due to our dependence on infrastructure systems, more dangerous to our communities. The polar vortex of January 2019 that blasted the American Midwest and later the Northeast brought frigid temperatures as low as 45 below zero and claimed the lives of several people in just two days. The demand for natural gas reached an all-time high, and 150 people lost their gas supply. Electricity prices peaked and 20,000 people were left without power. In 2014, when 200 million Americans were affected by a cold wave, gas prices hit record highs in New England and twelve people died.

Extreme heat is even more dangerous and is the number one cause of death resulting from natural disasters in the United States. The North American heat wave of 2012 claimed 82 lives and resulted in a thunderstorm that left 3.7 million people without power nationwide. Infrastructure tends to fail us when we need it most. When infrastructure fails, people may die.

Short-term Solutions Are Only Solutions for a Short Time

When community members are left without heat and power, their equipment malfunctions or is poorly designed, or they cannot afford the increase in price, what do they do? Where do they go? They turn first to their friends, families, and neighbors for support. If these avenues are inaccessible or also at risk, community members look to public resources. During the day, people may visit their public library or other public buildings to get warm in the winter or stay cool during a heat wave. However, once the library closes, they must return to their unsafe living conditions or find an often-crowded shelter nearby. After the polar vortex of January 2019, the Boston Public Library system saw an influx of people using libraries to stay warm, particularly in areas where there were no alternative resources, such as shelters or warming centers. Occasionally, good Samaritans sponsor people in hotels or the American Red Cross sets up large-scale warming centers, but these resources are heavily strained, are not designed for sheltering people during extreme weather, and are biased towards serving urban populations.

Long-term Solutions Require Passive Design

National efforts have been made to increase the resilience of the power grid and natural gas lines. However, these systems are still vulnerable. In addition to residents losing fuel access, their mechanical equipment often struggles to meet the demands of temperature extremes. The possibility of infrastructure failure always exists. Historically, however, homes relied less on real-time supply chains, stored more energy locally (e.g., a winters supply of wood stacked out back), and were designed to leverage local conditions to reduce energy demands (e.g., the shading porches of southern homes and low ceilings and large chimneys of the Cape Cod style). These homes were optimized with available passive systems—systems that are simple in design and do not involve mechanical or electrical devices, such as pumps or fans, to condition the indoor environment.

Examples of passive systems include:

  • Solar design—the building’s location and orientation are studied and used to maximize and/or minimize natural effects, such as solar heat gain. These decisions can reduce heating and cooling costs.
  • Thermal mass—the building’s mass is used to store heat energy in order to reduce temperature swings; it can supplement solar heat gain to radiate heat at night.
  • Natural ventilation—wind-driven pressure differences are used to move air through the building without mechanical assistance, reducing cooling costs.
  • An improved building envelope—the interior of the building is separated from the exterior with minimal air leaks or thermal bridges to reduce the demand for indoor mechanical conditioning.

With the introduction of active systems such as heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, plumbing, and electricity, passive design became practically nonexistent in our homes, rendering them fragile without the support of active machinery. Improving passive design would increase the passive survivability.

Moving Forward

Engineers and architects have the responsibility to hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public. Until building codes adapt, building professionals must seriously consider integrating passive design into their projects to ensure occupant safety during extreme weather events. Building professionals will have to go beyond their standard operating procedures to ensure that passive design strategies are incorporated into their final designs. This is similar to how certain firms have adopted the principle of avoiding the use of building materials composed of toxic chemicals listed on the Living Building Challenge’s Red List, even though neither their clients nor the building code requires them to do so. They do it because they believe it is the right thing to do.

Outside the engineering offices, we can actively participate in local-government disaster preparedness committees, providing our expert knowledge of our community’s vulnerabilities. Government officials and community leaders can improve community resilience during extreme weather events by increasing passive design requirements in the building code, facilitating well-neighbor-check programs, informing constituents, and ensuring adequate community resources are available when buildings fail to meet occupants needs. Strengthening the passive survivability of the community as a whole will reduce the risks associated with extreme temperatures, decrease the impacts that these weather events, and certainly save lives.

Krissy Govertsen is a research assistant in the Automation in the Built and Living Environment (ABLE) Laboratory organized by Michael Kane at Northeastern University. Her research focuses on measuring the thermal performance of homes under regular conditions to predict their performance during extreme weather events. Govertsen can be reached at Kane can be reached at