Architecture 101: Bioclimatic design

Like all good inventions, architecture began as a solution to a need. And because humans love to complicate everything, architecture transformed into all sorts of other things. At its core however, architecture is about providing shelter and comfort. Humans have been controlling the elements to their own advantage since the first person threw an animal skin over a cave opening. In today’s parlance, this is has become an architectural concept known as bioclimatic design.

In its essence, bioclimatic architecture bases design on the local environment to create thermal comfort using natural resources. Incorporating bioclimatic thinking at the design stage helps to reduce energy use, carbon emissions and the long-term expense of heating and cooling a home. At Blakstad Design Consultants, this process starts with a complete study of the sun’s movement across the sky over the day and the course of a year in reference to the proposed orientation of the structure. Measuring the trajectory of the sun informs not only which direction to place the different parts of the house, but also the areas that may need some extra sunlight via skylights and lanterns or extra shade via pergolas and shutters. It’s not rocket science, but it can produce some interesting conundrums that require an architectural solution. Where science comes into it is in the form of new technologies.

There are two international accreditation systems that promote, monitor and educate on bioclimatic design. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification program started in 1983 as part of the Natural Resources Defense Council operated from the US Green Building Council. In 1998, Swedish structural engineer Bo Adamson and physicist Wolfgang Feist of the German Institute for Housing and the Environment developed the guidelines that would become PassivHaus, a voluntary standard for energy efficiency. Both these institutions insist on a set of rigorous requirements to achieve certification. However, even without these certifications, a building can become not only a passive entity eliminating toxic emissions but also an active supplier of energy by feeding electricity back into the grid.

After considering the trajectory of the sun and adjusting the design to harness its warming rays, the next obvious step is to install solar panels. In the past, expense and battery storage limited the efficacy of domestic solar systems but recent technological breakthroughs have made it possible to run a complete household on the strength of the sun and this no longer has to mean unsightly roof panels. Building-integrated photovoltaics such as roof tiles and shingles (Tesla has some nice models), window and skylight glass, facades and canopies can all collect solar energy while looking stylish and discreet.

Ventilation is a key aspect in LEED and Passivhaus certified structures, often using very simple technologies to pump cool and clean air through the home not only saving the earth but also saving your health. Heating and cooling homes produces approximately 441 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. Mechanical Ventilation Heat Recovery systems (MVHR) continuously extract stale, moisture heavy air and replace it with fresh, clean filtered air, all year round. This is especially good for Ibiza’s damp climate. In the colder months, the heat recovery system naturally warms the incoming air creating a comfortable interior temperature with practically little energy.

The development of new materials is at the forefront of bioclimatic design innovations. The students at the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia (IAAC) have been making impressive headway with materials and systems for energy efficient air-conditioning and passive ventilation. Their focus is on long-lifespan materials, low maintenance costs and low-cost building alternatives. Hydroceramics, Breathingskin, Hydromembrane, Moprhfluid and soft robotics are all products soon to change the way we design our homes and public spaces.

It’s not all about modern technologies. Remember that bioclimatic design has been around for millennia, from the proverbial animal skin over the cave door to the windcatcher towers of ancient Persia still in use today. The most common and easily accessible technology when it comes to bioclimatic design is the common garden. A thoughtfully placed pergola or trellis planted with seasonal climbing vines will provide shade through the windows of the house in the summer and as the leaves drop in winter will allow much needed sunlight to flood the interior. Layering shade trees creates areas of deep coolness under which to sip a glass of iced tea. Water features insinuate coolness via sound and sunshades plus light-coloured paving will help too. Fill courtyards with different sized plant pots and parasols and bring the outdoors inside with some thoughtfully placed indoor greens to create a sense of coolness.

Bioclimatic solutions can work just as well on retrofitted renovations as on new builds and taking the time to speak with your architect and do a little research creates not only a beautiful home, but one that helps protect the environment and reduce your energy expenses in the long term.