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Should architects and builders reassess some of their approaches to ensure maximum comfort and sustainability in the buildings of the future?

Publication Date: 05 March, 2015


Should architects go back to brass tacks? This was the question Prof Susan Roaf of Edinburgh’s Heriot Watt University posed at the latest UCD Earth Institute public lecutre at the Royal Irish Academy on 4th March 2015.

One of the U.K’s foremost practitioners in the built environment, Roaf began her academic career looking at ancient technologies, including British ice houses. Over time she has become a keen advocate for sustainable building practices, and during the seminar she questioned some of the current principles of architecture she sees in evidence in our civic landscapes.

Should Passive Houses really be the aim for sustainable builders? Susan says ‘no’, pointing out that the removal of natural ventilation from these structures divorces them from their climatic context and can indeed lead to over-heating, thereby requiring mechanical and energy-hungry means of cooling. Closer to the ideal is the Scandinavian concept of an Active House, which builds in processes for capturing and storing energy for future use. But ultimately Roaf believes that we can learn many lessons from earlier periods of architecture, where buildings were designed with reference to the climate in which they were situated and facilitated cooling in summer and heating in winter through their structural composition. As a result, their energy footprint was relatively low.

Indeed, Susan argues that cheap energy in the mid 20th century actually enabled a series of poor building design developments. The flip-side of this was felt in the recent economic crash, when energy costs more than doubled in the space of year. Heating and cooling costs which had previously been accepted became unsustainable, leaving large numbers of buildings no longer ‘comfortable’ to live or work in.

Roaf advocates a return to basics – embracing principles such as natural ventilation, solid construction and reference to the local climate when building the basic shell of the building. A range of what she calls ‘level 2’ factors can then be added to augment the comfort of the building – measures such window blinds, window openings, heating or cooling elements etc. She wonders however, whether architects have become overly distracted by ‘level 3’ factors, which involve the sensation or perceptions of a building – a drive to create a ‘wow’ factor which has sometimes led to loss of sight of the basic function of a building and a corresponding loss of comfort.

Roaf is planning a book to discuss these concepts in a quest to identify how to plan a comfortable building in today’s environment, taking into account finite energy resources and the ‘wild-card’ that is climate change. While she stresses that her ideas are still in the formative stage, the lecture gave a fascinating insight to some of the issues and concerns she hopes those in the design and construction sectors will take into account as we plan and build for the future.Susan Roaf at RIA 4th March