The What, Why & How Of Climate Change Resilience Building

By Somer Spencer

“Never seen flooding like this” – ‘Storm particularly harsh on St. Elizabeth, Manchester’ – Jamaica Observer, October 3 2010

“Hurricane Sandy moving across Jamaica with heavy rain, high winds” – Caribbean 360, October 24 2012

Flooding in St. Mary” – The Gleaner, November 10 2012

Prepare for drought!” – ‘ODPEM Warns Citizens to Get Ready For Dry Season’ – The Gleaner, January 7 2013

Cabinet approves $30m to Fight Drought” – ‘Robertson Says Allocation Insufficient for West St. Thomas’ – The Gleaner, January 23 2013

These are just a few headlines that have been in Jamaica’s media recently. Over the past years, the island of Jamaica has faced a hurricane, flooding and drought conditions. These are only a few of the climatic issues the island faces and with climate change, it is predicted to intensify. Climate Change is no longer something that is expected to happen, it is already here!


You hear this term on the airwaves, on the internet, in social media, at conferences and in your living room. Whatexactly does this ‘buzz’ phrase mean and why is it so important.

Climate Change is defined as ‘… a change in the state of the climate that can be identified … by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties and that persists for an extended period.’ It is not unusual for the global climate to change over time; however, with the pace at which this change has been happening since post-industrial times, it is believed that human activity has accelerated this process. It is noted that over the past century alone, the earth’s average temperature has risen 1.4˚ F and it is predicted to continue rising. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change narrows their working definition of climate change to specifically focus on changes that occur as a result of direct or indirect human activity. The definition reads:

The regional projected impacts from climate change purported to affect the built environment include warmer temperatures, drought, flooding, landslides, accelerated coastal erosion, more intense storms and hurricanes.


Before we can define a climate change resilient building, we need to define the term resilience. Resilience has been defined as ‘the capacity for a system to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic function and structure’ . When applied to buildings, a climate change resilient building may be defined as a structure, whether permanent or temporary, that is enclosed with exterior walls and a roof constructed on a plot of land that has the capacity to absorb disturbances, in particular climate change related impacts, and still retain its basic function and structure. Climate Change Resilient Building encompasses the actual structure as well as the siting of the building and its materiality.


Caribbean Terrace in Jamaica is a perfect example (but not the only one) of why we need resilient buildings. On numerous occasions, this seaside community has been affected by storm surge, in some cases displacing its residents. During the reporting period 1980 to 2010, there were 29 natural disasters recorded that had affected approximately 1,895,317 persons and causing a death toll of 226. Yearly, that is approximately 61,139 persons are affected, with 7 persons dying from natural disasters alone.

Building exteriors are similar to the human skin, in that it protects its occupants from climatic conditions. Without it, we are all vulnerable. With the predicted escalations in climate change related impacts, attention needs to be focused on increasing the resilience of our building stock to prevent loss of life and property.


Codes. Building codes play an important role in raising the minimum standard of the building stock, by establishing the minimum requirements for: the siting /location of the building, the building envelope, the building material, systems and sustainable practices.

Sustainable practices. As Alex Wilson from Building Green puts it: ‘It turns out that many of the strategies needed to achieve resilience–such as really well-insulated homes that will keep their occupants safe if the power goes out or interruptions in heating fuel occur–are exactly the same strategies we have been promoting for years in the green building movement. The solutions are largely the same, but the motivation is one of life-safety, rather than simply doing the right thing. We need to practice green building, because it will keep us safe–a powerful motivation–and this may be the way to finally achieve widespread adoption of such measures.’ Sustainability needs to be forefront in everyone’s mind. It needs to become a way of building rather than an option.

Enforcement. All the ideas and strategies in the world will make little difference without governance and enforcement.

Consolidation of resources. Currently, there are many different organizations and resources available. Some are more accessible than others. Creating a collaborative single resource that is easily accessible will help minimize confusion, duplication and prevent the use of different resources for validation.


As a region, we need to have enforceable building codes …
As a region, we need think sustainably …
As a region, we need to recognize and improve the weaknesses in our system …
As a region, we need to work together…

‘Build Better Jamaica’ is a public awareness campaign for an Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) funded project with the Institute for Sustainable Development at the University of the West Indies titled: Developing Design Concepts for Climate Change Resilient Buildings. This project analyses the climate change related risks and is charged with developing strategies and policies to increase resilience in the building stock in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean. The results of the research are intended to aid in improving building practices and provide input for legislative reforms for Jamaica and the wider Caribbean.

Wi likkle but wi tallawah … Let’s Build Better Jamaica!

Somer Spencer R.A.(FL), LEED® AP BD+C, NCARB is part of the team of consultants lead by MODE Ltd, who are undertaking a review of Building Codes, as one of the focus areas of the Developing Design Concepts for Climate Change Resilient Buildings project.