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Breathing Space

Karen McEvoy | Merritt Bucholz

We no longer take for granted the air we breathe. Our connection to the processes of Nature is expressed every moment in the transfer of oxygen that occurs in our lungs, a basic exchange with our environment. We are the consumers of air and our bodies the mechanisms for its processing: Nature takes back our waste and transforms it to Life for other beings, those beings in turn providing us with oxygen.

The pandemic has engendered a heightened awareness of the quality and constituents of the air that we breathe in our internal and external environments. A focus has been drawn to the processes of human respiration; the recommendations of spatial and social distancing informed by the travel distances of exhaled air droplets have put into question the degree to which our breathing environments are healthy or otherwise. Movements of air, normally intangible and invisible to the human eye, have been rendered almost visible by the attention received (widely viewed images of clouds illustrate the impacts of aerosol exhalations, air droplets thrust forward with increased velocity) - whilst there has been an acknowledgment that fresh air will dilute the viral load.

Architecture, in forming the internal environments in which humans breathe, can seek to play an active breathing role in an extension of these processes. Nuanced spatial interfaces with the external environment can support ventilation strategies that emulate natural respiratory processes, creating healthy environments - as opposed to discrete sealed artefacts wholly dependant on the insertion of mechanical “Life support” systems.

To breathe, we understand what assistance we require, and are beginning to appreciate the wide and deep extents of Nature’s penetration into our constructed systems within which we attempt to separate ourselves from Nature.

The pressure difference necessary to effectuate the transfer of air by the human body is part of how the human organism works, and though we control breathing while cognizant, we do not need to be cognizant to breathe. Architecture that seeks to understand this biological model, and is a response to these larger natural systems in which it is set, can offer design solutions that breathe without cognition, yet can be controlled by human cognition, creating environments for humans that can sustain Life.

During the pandemic we have seen the use of mechanical ventilators to assist with human respiration. In buildings, such devices have been commonplace since the 1950s, mechanisms that effectively form a ventilation system that pre-breathes for us. The air we intake has been breathed in by the building’s mechanical system and regurgitated for human use. Frequently this is in response to sharp differences between air quality, air temperature, and air humidity external to and within a space.
The role of architecture in this dynamic has been effectively reduced as the sharpness of the differences has increased, and air-change requirements have been increasingly met by mechanical means. The technological and financial investment in these mechanical respiratory systems is enormous, in almost all large building projects representing as much as 30% of the project budget and frequently more. These systems are also among the building components with the shortest lives - though they may function for 10 to 20 years, the constantly advancing technology of ventilation and air-conditioning equipment ensures the need for incremental maintenance year on year, and shorter timeframes to obsolescence. The considerably longer design life of the architectural fabric suggests that the latter be considered an important participant in the breathing dialogue between internal and external environments, in the creation of hybrid solutions that are not wholly dependent on mechanical means. This requires a holistic multidisciplinary design approach from the outset that integrates natural ventilation as a performative driver to inform and enrichen the architectural response - the more the architectural fabric can assist in the tasks of breathing, the less reliance there will be on machines to do the breathing.

Designing buildings that breathe requires that ventilation be a generative architectural thought, rather than considered a task wholly performed by a supplemental device, a mechanical ventilator. Architectural volumes can be considered lung-like in their exploitation of pressure difference, and a building in its entirety considered an integral part of a large respiratory system. This approach suggests that air-flow and quality are not determined solely by the mechanical processing of air, but are inherent to any architectural ensemble, by virtue of its particular spatial and material characteristics, resulting in different stratification and layering of air temperatures and relative humidity levels for example. Variations in temperature and humidity as seasons change, as the day shifts from morning to night, and as climate change places stress on buildings that exceed their environmental design parameters are considered so that when technological solutions are rendered obsolete, the architectural fabric can still flex and adapt to changes occurring in the environment, as Nature does.

In this way architecture acts as a climate mediator, creating interfaces between the exterior and interior to offer comfortable and healthy environments for humans to live, work, and gather in. Scientific research has now offered considerable evidence, through numerous studies, to support what had previously been intuitively understood - that spaces that are naturally ventilated and daylit, with strong connections to Nature, offer settings that are conducive to human health, speeding up healing and recovery, offering a sense of well-being. We are reminded of how the architecture of sanitoria responded to the tuberculosis epidemic of past years.

In the work of our practice we seek to craft environmentally responsive architectural fabric, supporting natural ventilation strategies, emulating the respiratory systems of Nature.
The movement and buoyancy of air is affected by the size and relative juxtaposition of spatial volumes (breathing spaces), the porosity or otherwise of architectural envelopes (breathing skins), pressure differences created by their relationship with wind paths, all in response to tight parameters defined by human comfort criteria (perception of temperature, humidity, air movement, etc). The quality of that air is positively impacted upon by the degree of breathability of the surface materials which hold it (breathing materials), and the emissions those surfaces release into the atmosphere, and the air that we breathe.

Breathing Spaces

Rather than conceiving of architecture as an assemblage of static forms and materials, referring to the statics of building physics and material properties, we refer to buildings as “breathing organisms”, using physiological analogies. The configuring of the bones of buildings, the sculpting of their volumes, and porous skins, in response to the sun, wind and water cycles, all impact on air movement through a building.

External skins of controlled porosity are connected to internal “organs” formed by the architectural fabric - in concert with each other these form a breathing system. In the choreographed interfaces between internal and external environments, “buffer” spaces become performative “organs” of the respiratory system - the attenuation of the space between inside and outside allows for micro-climatic shifts over time, seasonal variations of temperature, wind, rain, sun angle. In these breathing spaces that mediate seasonal climate shifts, new spatial typologies emerge - the atrium “lung”, the winter “garden”, the solar “chimney” - spatial opportunities exist where transitions between climates occur. These offer new settings for human use, beyond defined functionals - spaces for less defined, emergent or peripheral uses, break-out spaces for social interactions. Spaces typically not valued within a project’s cost framework, such as a “sheltering verandah”, or a “breeze porch”, named with reference to their climate related function, offer places where human use can adapt according to changing comfort conditions over time - spaces for example with higher rates of ventilation, more exposure to the sun, can be more accessible to intuitive use.

Aligned with and supporting these spatial models, structural systems are shaped to assist airflow, create shade, and enhance daylight penetration. Deep timber trusses offer shade, whilst concrete profiles are sculpted to enhance the distribution of daylight and air, optimizing surface area to mediate internal temperatures swings.

Breathing Skins

While the architectural fabric harnesses available natural energies, the breathing skin or environmental “veil” is exchanging air, protecting and shading, recalibrating and adjusting the interior in relation to the exterior, by selectively mediating external environmental forces. Relatively recently, the design response to the passage of air across a wall has evolved into a series of synthetic layers dealing with the properties of that air; temperature, humidity, velocity. This leads to complex assemblies with layers of separately tested and certified products each with its own distinct functionality. If this way of composing a wall is highly technological, it is also unnatural.

The design of a breathing skin begins with the careful examination of the macro and micro climatic conditions, an iterative process to explore design strategies that consider various use scenarios across seasonal changes in weather. In response, a nuanced architectural skin enables a building to breathe, often thickening the space between inside and outside, creating breathing layers that enable the filtering, directing and controlling of air exchange. In collaboration with environmental engineers, using dynamic modelling from early design stages, we strive to optimize the natural ventilation of buildings by automatic and user controlled means to arrive at holistic, often hybrid approaches, all of which inform the architectural response. The design articulates how it is to be used: internally the environmental veil reflects its function as an instrument of ventilation, with components such as openings, panels, vents, that people can easily operate, and are robustly constructed for use over a long period of time. What is technological needs also to be intuitive.

Breathing Materials

Nature offers us a palette of materials with a natural capacity to breathe, slowly. Materials with a natural capacity to absorb water, absorb pressure differences and mediate temperatures. Wood and wood fiber, lime render and sheep’s wool breathe whilst capturing moisture and stopping air flow, but not completely. Indoor air quality is an increasing area of concern as buildings become more air tight and often exclusively dependent on mechanical means to introduce fresh air. In endeavoring to minimize the toxic off-gassing of the architectural fabric, and any consequent impacts on air quality, the use of natural breathing materials offers other qualitative advantages.
Timber resonates positively with humans, its warmth, texture, color and aromatic qualities adding to a layer of richness brought by the varying qualities of different species. With good hygroscopic properties, it helps to regulate relative humidity in internal environments, keeping it within a comfortable range. Naturally hypoallergenic, it has inherent sound dampening and insulating qualities. An organic material intimately aligned with the processes of Nature, timber is versatile, well suited to the crafting of a finely tuned filigree of sheltering, shading and filtering elements of a breathing envelope. Façade ventilation boxes, opening flaps, and brise-soleils are crafted from timber of different species according to the varying properties and structural behaviour of each.

A humble, generous and forgiving material, timber is also lean, strong, light and regenerative. Willingly crafted by human hands (enabling its easy repair and maintenance into the future), or by increasingly intelligent fabrication processes crafted by humans. Assisting in counteracting the ongoing destabilization of the planetary carbon cycle, its ability to sequester carbon has led us to increasingly seek to employ timber as a core structural material, either alone in mass timber structures, or in hybrid scenarios in concert with concrete for example.

Breathing Nature

In any project, we seek a means by which a contribution can be made to its public realm setting, blurring the boundaries between private and public, between internal and external. “Breathing spaces” offer venues to blur these boundaries, places to interact with Nature, places for socializing. In-between zones in the interstices of buildings or building ensembles can become places to host Nature, engaging sustainably with its systems and cycles. “Buffer” spaces can offer venues for plant life, benefitting from its atmospheric filtering and humidity regulating activities in an interplay between natural and built systems, as is so masterfully integrated in traditional Japanese architecture.

Between buildings “breathing” spaces with specific micro-climatic conditions offer places for urban growing, whilst raingardens engage with the water systems of Nature, attenuating and redistributing flows. A rainwater collection pond offers “coolth” to adjacent internal spaces through a breathing façade, enhancing biodiversity whilst offering a pleasant space to sit.

Architecture in serving as an intelligent mediator of environmental conditions can create healthy settings for humans over time, into the deep future. Perhaps buildings that exclusively require ventilators to sustain them can be avoided by embracing architecture that is not dependent on “Life support” systems. In the face of the large challenges of climate change and pandemics, we need to tend to the finely regulated balance necessary to support Life, and to participate in the important regulation of carbon on the planet. Using scientific data to inform and enrichen our design responses, we can seek to create architecture that engages collaboratively with the eco-systems of Nature, in their constant state of adaptation, re-calibration, re-negotiation of interrelationships in sophisticated ways, constantly evolving with the purpose of survival - and sustaining Life.

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