Considerations for Building Design in Cold Climates

Lucia R

Hadaway House   View this Block

One of the hardest climates to build for is a cold one; the wrong design could leave you with a cold home, dripping walls, peeling paint, colds and other mishaps. Architecture can be used as a tool to make homes better equipped to bear it. Below are some ways architectural design can be used to accommodate cold climates.


Insulation is one of the most important features to consider when designing for a cold climate. Keep in mind that not all insulation configurations are made equal, and what works for one climate doesn't work for the other, which is why before building you must do the proper calculations. Some of the calculations you have to make:-

  • Condensation: You have to make sure your walls, roof and floors don't condensate in-between; different configurations using the same materials can result in very different condensation patterns. What causes condensation? Differences between the outside temperature and the surface temperature of each of the elements in a configuration; this differences can be calculated either by hand or using a specialized software. You must also keep in mind the worst possible climate scenarios for the zone you're working on, such as the coldest temperature of the year and the most humid time of the year; that way you can make sure your configuration will do the job. You must also keep in mind the interior temperature of your building, as vapor can condensate on the interior surfaces of the building causing problems like fungus, mold and peeled paint.
  • Thermal Transmittance: You have to make sure your walls, roof and floor configurations are appropriate for the climate you're building for. Colder climates benefit from a very low thermal transmittance, expressed in W/m2K; that means your configuration must transmit the lowest quantity of heat possible. Some countries have constructive manuals that specify the minimum allowed thermal transmittance by climate region. It can be calculated manually or using specialized software. The basic formula is as it follows: U=1/(rsi ∑e/λ rse) (rsi interior resistance, rse exterior resistance, e material's thickness, λ material's thermal resistance )

Design Solutions:

You can also use your project's shape configurations to make it cold-climate friendly. What kind of design decisions can you make?

  • Sloped roofs: Most times, colder climates are tied to heavy rain and sometimes snow. You have to design your project to withstand the extra weight of snow (if it's a snowy region) and/or to make sure it won't create puddles that may result in leakage, and in worst case scenario, collapse of the roof.
  • The right windows: In colder climates, windows can be allies and foes at the same time: put too many, and you'll lose heat, put too little and you won't receive any heat from the sun. Make sure you strategically place your windows facing the sun (north, when you're building in the southern hemisphere, South when you're building north of the equator). Try to use glass with low thermal transmittances, such as hermetically sealed double glass. Skylights are also a good option, as they bring in more light (sometimes scarce in colder regions) and are easier to point to the sun.
  • Lower ceilings: Avoid designing rooms with very high ceilings, as heat tends to go up and it'll end up being wasted where none can feel it.
  • Facade color: You can paint or coat your project, especially the roof, with darker colors; dark colors absorb heat, and allow to passively warm the inside of the building.

Do you work in cold climates? Have you designed projects in cold climates? How many of these solutions have you used? Do you know of others?
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Answers (1)

markashby27, Technician • Nov 3

Thermal resistance and condensation. Are these subjects that need to be discussed on an Architect website. Surely they are both basic subjects that all architects, architectural technologist, designers and product developers should know about and are basic subjects through all architectural educationa. . It is basic knowledge.