Some of the best new green buildings are those that challenge our ideas of conventional architecture—but don’t challenge the environment. Building designs that embrace and respond to the local environment, called bioclimatic architecture, as opposed to trying to thwart nature with mechanical systems, are seeing a 21st-century revival.
Much of the world’s architecture, prior to the 20th century, responded to the regional climate and could be considered bioclimatic. “If you look at older buildings, you see that people were very good at adapting to climate to get the maximum performance, but we kind-of got lazy once air conditioning and electric light came along at the turn of the last century,” says Patrick Leonard, the director of Paladino and Company, a green building consultant based in Seattle.
Over the course of centuries, builders around the world had refined different types of bioclimatic architecture, particularly in regions such as North Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Europe. For instance, the traditional Spanish hacienda design uses thick, thermally dense walls to retain heat or chill, thereby regulating temperature and creating a stable indoor microclimate, says Sam Kimmins, the principal sustainability advisor for the Forum for the Future, a global sustainable development organization based in London.
The haciendas have “small windows to reduce solar gain, or overheating, to the south, and larger windows to the north to bring in light,” he says. Similar thick-walled structures are found in ancient Greece, Yemen, and other regions.
Leonard pointed to the traditional high-peaked, curved roofs in China and Japan, developed to control stormwater and snow, as well as the indigenous architecture of Hyderabad, Pakistan, which has a structure designed to capture winds and channel air flow for natural ventilation.
Sod houses built by Scandinavian and Nordic cultures hundreds of years ago were some of the first bioclimatic structures to integrate vegetation, says Bruce Dvorak, a professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning at Texas A&M University. “With stone and timber and other supporting materials, the sod formed the bulk of the walls and insulated the house,” he says. “Live sod was also placed on the roof. The living sod on the roof shaded the building during the summer and insulated the house during the winter.”
By the late 19th century, much of the world’s architecture had evolved to use characteristics of the building site and building fabric to create a comfortable internal environment, Kimmins says. Some tactics used were air flow across ponds to create natural cooling; plantings to create shading; a stack structure to bring about natural ventilation; or orienting rooms in different directions and adapting window sizes to regulate temperature.
With the advent of modern technology in the 20th century, contemporary design trends shifted away from being responsive to natural conditions and emphasized instead isolating buildings from nature to try to overcome those conditions. The evolution of technologies to thwart nature wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, Leonard says.
“I think it’s a great innovation that we don’t have to be climate-adaptive, because it opens up a lot more of the world for trade and commerce and just being habitable,” he says.
Still, the evolution of new technologies and spread of “international style” architecture have created situations where, for instance, the glass office towers so popular in Western cities are built in desert climates that turn them into greenhouses. In some instances, there are even so-called “green” buildings constructed that have little or no responsiveness to the environment.
One of the latest trends in architecture is to use new technology to enhance, amplify, and measure the performance of traditional bioclimatic techniques.
“I think now we’re more focused on resource conservation and using what’s locally available, so we’ve got an opportunity to take the best of both worlds—in other words, how do we apply new technology to help us climate adapt?” Leonard says.
One example is a case of biomimicry in Harare, Zimbabwe, where a mid-rise building without air-conditioning was designed to stay cool with a termite-inspired ventilation system. Scientists digitally scanned termite mounds to map their architecture in three dimensions, and then architects and engineers applied the acquired knowledge about tunnels and air conduits to create a blueprint for self-regulating buildings for humans.
Another recent case is the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia, Liberia, which could have been an example of the worst kind of climate-blindness, but instead the government chose to respond to the local climate in modifying its typical building prototype.
“The Department of State has a standard embassy design, which can be deployed anywhere in the world, but if you don’t adapt it for climate, you’re basing your design off a Washington, D.C., building,” Leonard says. “So it was a really big move in Monrovia to take this standard embassy design and make it climate-appropriate and responsive to the location.”
The embassy, which is LEED Gold, is located in a hot, humid, high-rainfall location, so it uses waste heat for cooling, rainwater for drinking water, and extensive photovoltaic electricity generation to enhance energy security.
“With fairly minimal modifications, you can make the building way more efficient,” Leonard says. “Even things as simple as, while you insulate the wall cavity in Washington, D.C., in Monrovia we’ve found if you use less insulation in the wall, you get a more efficient building, because you don’t want to retain any heat.”