Hospitals face increasingly tough challenges in heatwaves as global temperatures are predicted to rise. Professor Alan Short is helping the UK’s National Health Service to find sustainable solutions.

We’ve had this terrific opportunity to think much more speculatively than designers in practice could ever do

Professor Alan Short

Cambridge University’s research [is] at the heart of government policy on making the country resilient to climate change

NHS’s Acting Director of the Estates & Facilities Policy Division

Through more than 20 years’ experience of designing buildings that make the most of natural processes – how hot air rises and cool air falls Professor Alan Short has developed methods that work. And now he is bringing that expertise into a class of buildings where fresh air and stable temperatures are crucial.

Hospitals are among our most power-hungry buildings, containing some of the most vulnerable people. In hot summers, they face an increasing challenge in keeping patients safe, and energy costs down.

To help find a solution, Short and his colleagues picked recurring building types from the National Health Service’s (NHS) estate, including 1960’s and 70’s low, medium and high rise hospitals, such as the ward tower at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridgeshire, and monitored their internal temperatures for two years. The figures were used to calibrate a computer model to predict how well each building would perform in a heat wave and as climate change kicks in.

Short found that the heat inside the Addenbrooke’s block would be unacceptably high by 2030. But by adding in some simple modifications to allow air to flow naturally through the building, temperatures could be kept to acceptable levels, even up to 2080 in ‘normal’ warming years.

His findings have shown that costly replacement of NHS stock could be avoided. Rather than pull down and rebuild, the NHS could equip many of its hospitals to cope with climate change relatively cheaply and easily. Short’s group is currently advising on the redevelopment of Watford General Hospital and the building of the new Papworth Hospital.

And this model is now inspiring healthcare providers across the world. In China and India, Short’s expertise is sought at government level. In the US, a healthcare consortium used his results to help overturn a ban on opening windows in hospitals.


A warming climate

The NHS estate is one of the largest in the world overseen by a single body, amounting to some 28 million square metres. The age and state of the buildings varies widely, with many dating from before the NHS was formed in 1948.

In hot conditions, hospitals face particular challenges. Heatwaves are known to cause deaths in vulnerable people, particularly the very old and the very young. Air-borne germs have to be dispersed. But effective mechanical cooling and ventilation can be costly and highly carbon intensive.

To protect both patients and staff, and ensure that energy costs do not go through the roof, the NHS needs solutions now that can help it face this future challenge.


Sustainable solutions

Short and his colleagues first developed a prototype naturally ventilated building in 1990. Their award-winning zero carbon design for a brewery process hall in the Mediterranean climate of Malta made the most of cooler nights to reduce temperatures throughout the day.

This paved the way for further innovations. Passive Downdraught Cooling allows warm outdoor air to be drawn down into a building across pipes containing cold water, as at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in Bloomsbury. As the air cools it gradually fills a central well in the building. Floor vents on each level are then opened and the cool air flows in from the well, drawn across by buoyancy generated by stacks around the perimeter.

The UK’s Department of Health became interested in the potential application of designs such as these, and Short was awarded the successful Design and Delivery of Robust Hospital Environments in a Changing Climate (DeDeRHECC) project.

Full details can be seen in the DeDeRHECC project film.