Nearly 50 years ago, Reyner Banham was beginning to piece together a very novel form of architectural history, which was to become a classic of its time. “The Architecture of the Well-tempered Environment”(1),
chronicled the impact which the development of building services engineering had on the design of contemporary architecture, and the nature of the architect’s role in the design team.
One of the key developments which has had a profound influence on architecture, was the invention by Carrier (just one hundred years ago), of mechanical air-conditioning. Banham was the first to reveal that one of the bi-products of the air conditioned interior was that the form and fabric of the building envelope had ceased to function as the primary moderator of the external climate on the internal environment. In the process, many architects lost their knowledge of, and interest in, the environmental control functions of the building. Indeed, in many contemporary buildings the external envelope only serves to exaggerate dependency on mechanical conditioning to achieve a satisfactory environment. This of course has been a gradual process, and many of the great architects of the twentieth century proved to be exceptions to this rule. However, today, the control of the internal environment is almost entirely regarded as the province of the engineer.
But times are changing. Many (architects and engineers alike) believe that it is no longer acceptable for engineers to have to make good by brute force what others have failed to achieve by design. There is renewed interest in the rich, varied and subtle vocabulary of an architecture which successfully moderates the impact of the external environment on the internal environment to achieve thermal as well as visual delight, without total dependence on mechanical intervention. Alternatives are being sought for conventional air-conditioning which is now recognized as a significant contributing factor to global warming and climate change. This search has led to a re-discovery of the principles of environmental control through the manipulation of the building form and fabric: so-called ‘passive’ design. It is important of course to first establish why conventional air-conditioning is a problem.
Buildings globally are responsible for about 40% of all energy consumption. In the USA, air conditioning alone consumes approx 16% of all electricity, but is responsible for 43% of the peak load(2). The demand for air conditioning is a major reason for recent electricity supply problems on the west coast of the USA. CO2 emissions from air conditioning world-wide make a significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Apart from electrical energy, air conditioning also uses refrigerants, and commonly used refrigerants (like R134a and R22) are between 1300 and 1700 times more potent per molecule than CO2 in contributing to global warming.
Refrigerants (both CFCs and HCFCs) are responsible for the ‘holes’ appearing in the ozone layer. The stratospheric ozone layer is the World’s UV radiation shield. UV affects photosynthesis and kills phytoplankton (the basis of oceanic food chains). CFCs are extremely stable and (inspite of the Montreal Protocol) are still being manufactured in China and India. The black market for CFCs in the USA is said to rival that for narcotics. HFCs continue to be used of course throughout the world although the search for less damaging alternatives is bearing fruit. Alternative refrigerants may be part of the answer, but there is now strong interest in more radical alternatives to air conditioning.
The projects illustrated in this thematic The Plan issue on sustanability in architecture are a small contribution to the developing vocabulary of an architecture which is rediscovering the art of environmental control through the manipulation of building form and fabric. This is part of a global tradition, and is an integral part of the art of making architecture.
Architectural practice is increasingly complex and requires close collaboration between the different disciplines. Before Edison invented the electric light bulb and Carrier developed mechanical air conditioning, internal environmental control was mainly achieved by manipulation of the form and fabric of the building, the relationship of one space to another and the distribution of openings to allow light and air into the building. However, over the last 80 - 100 years, architects have increasingly required the environmental engineer to make good by “brute force” what they have failed to achieve by design.
This is partly due to a preoccupation with the “visible”, forgetting that we experience and respond to our environment through all our senses, and that this total experience informs our ‘aesthetic’ response. This alludes to the poetic side of this argument, to which this paper also refers. The subtle beauty of bringing the sound, fragrance and cool air from the gardens into the buildings, for example, is not a happy accident, but is a fundamental part of the design. Indeed, it is the qualities of the internal and external spaces that determine the achievement of an enriching and enabling environment for life and work.(2)
Architects and engineers must work together to regain an understanding of how building form and fabric can help to moderate the internal and external environment, to create an “enriching and enabling” built environment.
School of the Built Environment,
University of Nottingham
1) The Architecture of the Well-tempered Environment
Reyner Banham, First Edition, Architectural Press, 1969
2) Creative Empathy - The Productive Landscape of Architecture
John Olley, University College, Dublin, 2001
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