Before electricity and before Willis Carrier developed mechanical cooling as we know it today, buildings responded to their climates passively because that was the only possible response. From the dog-trots of the pioneer South and Southeast United States, to the cupola-bearing antebellum plantation houses of Louisiana, to Tewa adobe structures, to the passive cooling wind towers of ancient Persian architecture, humans have built in response to their climate, with great ingenuity, using natural materials at hand. In the last 80 years or so, however, we have become more and more estranged in our architecture from the climatological imperative. I am far from suggesting we pull the plug on mechanical cooling and heating (although I am not a fan — pardon the pun — of forced-air systems). Nevertheless, our current and justifiable preoccupation with climate may bring architecture to a kind of full circle.
Societally, we tend to think of architect-designed buildings as something of a luxury, forgetting that the role of architecture is founded in that basic human need, shelter. Since less than ten per cent of the built environment is designed by architects, that perception is reinforced by a paucity of professional design. Naturally (hopefully?) the lay public understands that large buildings are predominantly architect-designed, but roughly half the energy consumed by buildings (the built environment accounting for 42% of energy consumption in the US) is consumed by residences — and we see examples of lay residential design all around us. Some of it is good; much of it is not. I would argue that thinking of passive survivability is really just another way to consider the role of climate and environment as shape-givers to our buildings. Thinking in those terms as we design (or commission designs) may not only grant our buildings greater efficiency and smaller ecological footprints, but give their users greater satisfaction and joy.
Boecker, Martin and Schaffner (two architects and an engineer), in “Integrated Whole Systems Design: Redesigning the Design Process for High Performance Buildings“, presented a model for a collaborative design process involving clients, stakeholders, and design professionals working democratically (my characterization, not theirs). While I didn’t find their model ground-breaking by any means, it was refreshing to hear an engineer argue for early-stage collaborative design to a roomful of architects.
One of the model projects they presented involved a developer who was building a school to be leased back to the state (of New Jersey, I believe). They were able to convince their client (the developer) to invest in up-front system efficiencies because the same developer would be the building operator and would be paying utilities. As Lovins points out in his “Institutional Barriers to Energy Efficient Buildings”, the problem with the vast majority of buildings is that the developer is rarely the operator; this disincentivizes intelligent (and egoistic) developers from creating energy-efficient buildings. The example used, therefore, was an ideal project, and not a common model for development. Unfortunately when I raised this issue and asked how up-front efficiency investments could be sold to a developer following a traditional development model, I did not receive a satisfactory answer. For a (much) deeper analysis of the inherent problem, read Lovins’ article.