A point of view on Engineers and indoor climatic regulation

Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806–1859). One of the great early engineers, one of the engineers who invented engineering. Bridges of previously unimaginable elegance and strength. Steamships, Railways. Tunnels.

Brunel. One of my early heroes. Born in my home town of Portsmouth, England. An Engineer who understood and used the forces of nature. But he left people alone. In Brunel’s time indoor climatic regulation was nothing to do with engineering but was the sole domain of the architect.

The standard approach to indoor climatic regulation in a 20th century building, no matter which standards or country is concerned, is based on the engineering “logos” approach of defining the quantity of a given climatic regulation feature in relation to a set of fixed inputs.

The result is always “quality” defined in terms of numbers, useful for Brunel’s type of engineering work, but useless for work with people.

Artists, traditionally regarded as champions of the “pathos” dimension of life—the senses—know that for them (and for most ordinary people) beauty, for example, has no numerical equivalent. Architects used to be holistic artists too, until their seduction by 20th century energy and technology turned them either into technocratic bureaucrats and/or amateur sculptors.

Politicians, who should be champions of “ethos”—the ethical dimension—but who are often in modern times quite the opposite, know also that political decisions often are (or ought to be) based on tough ethical choices. Not on business lobbyists or state advisors basing their decisions on maximum profits or the struggle for power.

Corruptio optimi pessima said the ancient Latins. (Those who were the best, when corrupted, become the worst).

Life, of course, for most ordinary people, is a combination of logos, pathos and ethos. Some cultures and ideologies have more of one aspect than another, of course, and the balance can also change within one culture over time, sometimes over a surprisingly short period of time.

The general 20th century focus on logos, here in this paper specifically in regard to climatic regulation, causes many illogical and impractical results.

Numerical documentation was the mantra of the late 20th century. A simple “Cui bono?” analysis will reveal that engineers and related researchers have accrued wealth from this approach.

Buildings themselves have neither become more beautiful, healthier, environmentally friendlier, or cheaper as a result of this emphasis on numerical documentation.

Indoor climatic regulation received no attention from the early engineers, and buildings were developed by architects or artisans for people to live or work in.

Engineers such as Brunel did not just work with factory machines, bridges, fortifications, trains, ships: they invented them. Their prime problem was defining material properties and identifying the strains that nature or man would put onto these materials so that The Engineer could define the right strength and size of the material for the purpose. This is the traditional engineering method.

This engineering approach is not appropriate for climatic regulation for people, and climatic regulation only really became an area of interest for engineers when architects in the 1920s were seduced by technology and abandoned this connection between architecture and people—the indoor climate.

The traditional method of all engineering work is this calculation of the size of some physical quantity, such as the dimensions of a beam. Such calculations are based on exact knowledge of material properties, with adequate safety margins for imperfections, and exact numbers for loads; the weight of snow, or force of wind, with safety margins. The resulting calculation gives a result, a deflection of the beam of a certain number of millimetres, and this is accepted if it is within well defined limits.

A very sensible approach: for columns, bridges, ships, missiles, power plants, windmills, machines and all other “real” engineering applications.

Unfortunately, these same engineers, when the world of climatic regulation was given to engineers by Corbusier et al, naturally applied the same logical approach.

The first problem of course is that they needed to define something to give a size to. For example, a mechanical ventilation fan could be given some dimensions, whereas the idea of interpreting the influence of water evaporation from leaves or surface materials, or the random effects of wind and sun, have always been difficult to incorporate in the engineering equations.

An example everyone knows about, but engineers have no possibility for including in their calculations: virus, bacteria, fungi Influenza—the expression “catching a cold”. Well, how is this “cold” caught? We simply receive an “Infectious Dose” of whatever small enemy happens to be in the air we breathe in.

Simple vernacular methods for limiting spread of infection in the air have been used for centuries, primarily a large air volume diluting the virus concentration to a level under the “Infectious Dose” level. A difficult quantity for ventilation engineers to calculate, so they ignore it: in fact, ventilation systems with “effective” air mixing actually make the situation worse.

But the biggest single difficulty for the engineering approach to climatic regulation is people. People. Thinking, feeling, people, who are very difficult to put into engineering calculations.

Statistically there is of course an average person who behaves in an average way, and is happy with average climatic conditions. But “average” just means, by definition, that 50% are more or less dissatisfied, and the other 50% would be just as happy with less.

Using this outdated 20th century Corbusier/Carrier mentality it is unfortunately true that only by investing enormous sums of money, and space, and compromising the architecture, and compromising other factors such as light quality and sound quality, is it possible to achieve a climatic quality that can be calculated.

This nonsense arises from the neglect given to the influence of building components and the surrounding micro-climate on the indoor climate of the past 80 years. If everything associated with the building itself, all the building’s own climatic regulation factors previously named as “Fortochka”, “Rastrelli”, “Palladio”, “Matisse” etc., if all these are ignored, well, then it is obvious that only by increasing the quantity of the mechanical devices can there be improved indoor climatic conditions.

Why do we blindly and hopelessly continue to ignore almost all of the 9 factors in the indoor climate equation? Why continue to build buildings that are fundamentally unsustainable, obviously of a lower quality from the point of view of the people using these buildings, when alternatives are available, all around us, waiting to be investigated?

A rhetorical question, for the answer lies exactly in the last phrase “waiting to be investigated”. Modern buildings are filled with measuring devices of all imaginable kinds. We know a great deal about the performance of modern buildings, especially in the past 10–20 years where electronic measuring devices have become cheap and accurate.

A great deal of attention is paid to documentation of newer materials, to measuring the performance of newer materials in modern construction, to ensure that new construction meets standards, meets building regulations. Research focused on “progress” has naturally paid attention to the materials being used in modern construction.

But the change from vernacular methods and materials was never analyzed—it occurred simply as a phenomenon of the times of the revolutionary period of the early 20th century—concrete was (re)invented, and therefore used, glass walls could be built, and supported owing to the advances of structural engineering, and therefore these were used too.

Carrier’s invention of air-conditioning in the 1920s, the use of electric lighting, etc., meant that there were, apparently, no problems with maintaining indoor comfort. Wealth over the whole world was increasing exponentially with the productivity increases caused by consumption of enormous quantities of energy in ever increasing numbers of machines.

Why in the world should anyone have been interested in measuring indoor micro-climate in old buildings?

Well, the answer, as far as I know, is only a very few people, and they were regarded, quite rightly, as reactionaries. Why doubt progress, technology, the beauty of the machine, the quite genuine beauty of the successes of engineers like Brunel?

Here we have another parallel to the discussion on quantity and quality. Because the engineering approach is the right one for bridges, machines etc., and in fact for a building structure, does not mean that it is the right approach for a building’s indoor climate.

The conclusion of this discussion: keep engineers away from people if you want a good indoor climate.

Unfortunately, because it is apparently even worse to let the indoor climate be determined by amateur sculptors (modern architects) there is at present something of a problem in the indoor climate world. What is the solution?

Sergio Fox