It is odd: Whenever architects show pictures of climate adapted buildings they first tend to pick the igloo, the mountain hut in Switzerland or the wind catchers and the mud architecture of Iran. Or they pick high tech examples with all sorts of technical gadgetry or – to mainly render it green – trees on buildings. We seem to have lost the ability to craft simple and effective solutions.
One of the reasons is our obsession with comfort. Buildings need to provide comfortable conditions no matter the weather conditions outside. When it is hot outside we want to limit the temperatures not to exceed a certain level. No matter how hot it is. When it is cold, we want to be able to walk around almost naked inside without feeling cold – no matter how low the temperatures are. Reducing the range of what is acceptable comes at a high price. Literally and in terms of climate effects. Our buildings need more installations, more regulation and ultimately more carbon in the atmosphere.
Securing these comfort levels comes with a regulatory framework that makes changing common practice more and more difficult. Traditional construction methods such as rammed earth or other bio based materials stand little chance to be mainstream soon. Our regulations and norms are written to a large extent by those who have a vested interest in these norms to become more and more prescriptive and defining: powerful lobbyists promoting a huge M&E industry. After all a complex mechanical ventilation installations delivers a lot more money to producers than a simple ceiling fan to keep users fresh.
Next to the obsession for comfort there also seems to be an obsession for insulating. We create increasingly airtight buildings to reduce the loss of energy. As a consequence we need more insulation, more complex windows and doors and a mechanical controllable ventilation system with specifications that not only cost more in money but also in carbon; all to keep the energy consumption low for heating. We call it the passive house approach and that way of building has been firmly enshrined in all normative frameworks across the western world. There are alternatives: If you have a zero carbon source of energy, it does not matter how much energy a building consumes. As a matter of fact the less complex the building is in this case, the better its carbon balance.
If we want to tackle climate change, we need to rethink both, our definition of what comfort actually is and the means and methods we employ to achieve that. It could all be a lot more simple: focus on the carbon footprint balance of a building alone. That would open a path to a new vernacular in architecture. Local materials, local craftsmanship and building typologies that use or respond to the forces of nature in a much more specific way.
Matthias Rammig and Transsolar show us how that new vernacular could look like: Not a stylistic similarity but a new craftsmanship and climate design localism combined with a spatial language that is very much centered around human needs but in a less specific and therefore more culturally open way than the traditional vernacular.
To achieve that we as architects and urbanists can exercise our influence: in lobbying as building material companies do, in finding the loopholes of any regulatory framework and exploiting it to show a different future is possible and in adopting experimental approaches in city development. The model of the International Building Exhibition that Germany has embraced allows for experiments to show what is possible. Also World Expos have been places for that kind of experiment: Montreal and Osaka had a profound impact on architecture. Future Expos can become that again. But it is also us – the users and customers: We need to rethink our very concept of comfort and what we find important. Let’s get started there.
by Markus Appenzeller