A point of view on Architects and indoor climatic regulation

Jan Søndergaard. A Danish architect. In the early 1990s we experimented a little with climatic regulation possibilities, with a little success, and these projects are shown as part of the lectures to Russian students in 2005.

“Søndergaard” is chosen here as the name to represent this spirit of challenge and inquiry among architects and engineers: an attitude that can perhaps lead to a 21st century renaissance in the field of climatic regulation of buildings, where architects can reclaim their climatic knowledge, and responsibilities, and engineers can concentrate on objective analysis.

In “Brunel” we discussed the reasons for the rise of the engineering approach to indoor climatic regulation during the 20th century.

But 40 years ago the world received a shock, as the first environmental consequences of the “uncritical economic growth” philosophy began to appear. 30 years ago, the energy crises displayed how fragile this philosophy is. 20 years ago, indoor health problems (sick-building syndrome, asthma-allergy etc.) began receiving increasing attention.

For the past 10 years it seems to me that enormous attention has been paid to these areas, but in a way that has not affected the underlying philosophy. It is like finding that your house is built on sand and is sinking, but instead of biting into the root of the problem and strengthening or building new foundations you engage in hysterical activity to lighten the house or add some air balloons to hold it up, or other such nonsense.

But why have the old foundations sunk? And how should a new architectural foundation for climatic regulation look? At present it seems that the old, sinking, foundations of modernistic architecture are being upheld with nonsensical “sky-hooks”, while the new foundations that can hold the house up are themselves regarded as nonsensical. Perhaps the transition is not explained well enough, as this story from real design practice shows.

In the year 2000 there was a World Exposition in Hannover, Germany, and I was invited to contribute with some climatic regulation ideas for an enormous hall. In 1992 I had participated in a successful pavilion for the World Exposition in Sevilla, Spain, where we used new ideas, simpler, and cheaper, challenging climatic regulation ideas.

Maybe I was just younger then, more hopeful, or more naïve. But in 1992 we had produced a pavilion that showed some ideas, some ideals. Only 8 years later, in 2000, I retained the same visions; a world expo should show ideas and ideals.

But when I presented my proposal for climatic regulation the rest of the project team thought I was joking, and when they realized I was not, they thought I must have dropped by from another planet.

Well, it was my own fault I guess. In 1992 I had pushed at a lot of traditional boundaries in my professional field, challenged a couple of professors and their climatic regulation design bibles. And with success: we provided a simple system that was cheap, unobtrusive, and understandable; Happy client, happy architect, happy users.

But at least I had used, in a minimalist way, components and tools that were understandable to the building team. Although I used them in a very different way than the professors, engineers, producers etc., were used to, they were identifiable to the building industry.

During the 90s my studies and experiments, during design, but more importantly during measurements afterwards, in real buildings with real people, had given me several “Eureka” experiences in understanding how buildings themselves affected the indoor climate, how people reacted and how all kinds of features inter-reacted.

So now, for the Hannover World Expo I was ready to push the limits again.

The central element for climatic regulation of this huge pavilion was a 5 meter tall clay elephant. 150 cubic metres of advanced climatic regulation science; self-regulating, heated and sprinkled hygroscopic material, integrating climatic regulation with art, a sculpture, perhaps with a technologically advanced core, but a synthesis of art, of building technology, of the science of climatic regulation.

Well. I could equally have proposed wall surface materials of lime plaster, as has been used for centuries, for a similar effect, supplemented with some small mechanical devices. At least the project team would have recognized something from their building world.

Of course, they recognized the elephant as well, but could not quite grasp the connection to climatic regulation. I had chosen the allegory of an elephant because in nature an elephant is an elegant cooling machine, with an evaporative surface area of 3 times the geometric surface area and huge flapping ears as simple air movement devices.

But I guess I was a little over enthusiastic then, having in the previous 3 years discovered in my work at the Winter Palace the first connections between all the various forms of climatic regulation possibilities. With minimal additional equipment The Hermitage Staff and the Danish Energy Authority consultants (Niras) had provided adequate climatic improvements with low energy use, low cost, and without disturbing the architecture.

I developed a profound admiration for the genius for the 18th century Architect Rastrelli, the greatest climatic regulation “Engineer” ever, in my opinion.

And the more I thought about what he had done, and why, the more all the pieces of the climatic regulation puzzle began to fit together. And at the same time, awareness of the economic and environmental benefits from extrapolating this approach to other buildings began to rise.

So now, in these articles, I have collected this knowledge. The major purpose of presenting The Hermitage Climatic Regulation Method is to promote a new approach to climatic regulation of buildings; actually a reversal of the traditional engineering methods. Not necessarily clay elephants instead of metal boxes, but a new way of approaching the old problems.

Not the additive approach of more or larger or ecological components in a building; because if the climatic regulation foundation method itself is wrong, these will never amount to anything other than treatments to a diseased or dying building.

For example, it is clearly technically possible to thermally insulate a building so that it requires almost no heating. But because the climatic regulation “foundation” is wrong, because most of the elements of the climatic regulation equation have been ignored or forgotten, the result is often overheating in the summer, or poor quality air, or dark or noisy rooms, or frequently ill people.

As a result it is almost accepted as an indisputable fact of modern construction that, without mechanical cooling devices the inside temperature in a building will be higher in summer than the outdoor temperature. And this is also an empirical “fact” that most people can confirm.

But it is not a fact of building science itself, only a fact of the way modern sculpture-architects and virtual-reality-engineers have lost the ability to use building components to keep the building itself cool. Anyone familiar with old houses—prior to modern forms of restoration of windows, walls, removal of chimneys, etc., will know that it is often cooler inside these houses than it is outside. The building uses preventative climatic regulation.

The balance of climatic regulation has been lost, and this is often the case with modern design. Holistic climatic regulation is a ghost of the authors of architectural journals, not a result found in practice.

Many old buildings are actually “low energy” compared to modern buildings; without “low energy” equipment. They are architecturally friendly, without “integrated” pipes and ducts. They are user friendly, without 100 page manuals and “Don’t touch the thermostat signs”. They are builder friendly, without complex logistic management procedures. Client friendly, which means; simple, cheap, and they work.

If building climatic factors are introduced into modern design a completely different picture emerges. The embodied building climatic regulation (preventative) features of The Winter Palace at The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, have permitted us to build on this type of new (old) climatic foundation.

These features have been supplemented in the Winter Palace by small steam humidifiers and small fresh air supply units with energy recovery devices. These “Carrier” features are necessary owing to the very high visitor numbers, up to 10.000 visitors per room per day, but the feature to note is that these units are much smaller than, for example, the air-conditioning systems installed for the Sistine Chapel in Rome, or other museums around the world. It is, as always, necessary to be pragmatic and objective.

Therefore it can be stated that The Hermitage can, and already has, in a small area, jumped over the clumsy, ugly, energy-wasteful and expensive climatic regulation mistakes of the 20th century.

The mistake of ignoring the preventative measures developed over centuries by the advance of vernacular knowledge because the world received new mechanical climatic regulation toys, which we have used uncritically throughout the 20th century.

This method can be defined as maximization of the building technology (preventative or architectural) features that affect the indoor climate. The result is the minimization of the equipment technology (treatment, or engineering) features required to optimize the indoor climate.

In Rastrelli’s time such a method needed no description and name—it was just common sense. When Jan Søndergaard designed buildings in the early 90s they also just had common sense climatic regulation. But now it seems the method needs a name to be identified amongst all sorts of mechanical systems and various hocus-pocus attitudes.

Or does common sense for buildings for people really need a name in the 21st century? Can The Architect just recover “common sense” building design? Or will it be necessary for The Engineer to take over climatic control completely? “Søndergaard” or “Brunel”?

Sergio Fox