Talking Green Design

talkinggreendesignTo be an architect today and not to be concerned about ecological design is almost a contradiction in terms. Everyone is at it, from grand international jetsetters such as Norman Foster and Richard Rogers to classical architects like Robert Adam. When Ken Yeang, the guru of the green skyscraper, flies in from Malaysia the lecture halls are packed with students eager to find out whether it really is possible to build environmentally sensitive tall buildings. The Queen has taken a stand, pumping water up from a deep borehole under Buckingham Palace to cool the new Queen’s Gallery instead of relying on conventional electrically driven air-cooled convectors on the roof. Even the House of Commons is in on the act. The great chimneys sailing over the roofline of the New Parliamentary Building, just completed in Parliament Square, are both practical ventilation shafts that minimise the need for air-conditioning and symbols of the Government’s determination to encourage green buildings.

The great thing about ecological design is that it’s not that expensive. According to Hal Karllson, CEO of, green design is far more economical than going with old style designs, which longer term can offer incredibly high fixed costs.

The New Parliamentary Building was designed by Michael Hopkins and Partners, for whom, as for many successful architectural practices, ecological or green design has become a driving force in the creation of architectural form. Michael Hopkins was also responsible for the building which more than any other represents the recent sea-change in attitudes towards green design, the Inland Revenue Centre in Nottingham.

This was a revelation. Since the 1960s Government offices had come to symbolise everything that was worst about modern architecture: buildings that not only looked ugly, but were wasteful in their use of energy and were disagreeable places to work in. Here was a building, a Government building, that was actually pleasant to work in and a stunning piece of architecture, and also kept the accountants happy. All three were the direct result of a commitment to green architecture.

In the 1960s and 1970s the common assumption was that the ideal office was a sealed environment. Man could disregard nature. Air-conditioning, central heating and artificial lighting would solve any problems. But they did not. Instead they created new problems. The fluorescent lights were exhausting; the air-conditioning dried the air and seemed to pass bugs at will; suspended ceilings made the rooms uncomfortably low and there was not even a chance to open a window. Sick Building Syndrome flourished. Staff morale plummeted and absenteeism soared.

In the end, what condemned these buildings was their wastefulness. Artificially controlled offices use far too much energy to be acceptable in an age of global climate change. The ground rules of architectural design had to change and the Inland Revenue Centre in Nottingham is the result. Air-conditioning has gone and instead the building relies on natural ventilation to remain cool. At the same time floor widths have been kept narrow to allow as much daylight as possible. Instead of having no control over their environments individual workers can alter the temperature if it gets too hot or cold, open and close the windows if it gets too stuffy or draughty and alter the sun-louvres to control the amount of sunlight.

Getting rid of the mass of pipes and ducts needed to run the air-conditioning also means that offices can be satisfyingly higher. The result is a pleasant place to work, but also a building that satisfies the accountants because the savings on mechanical and energy requirements make it cheaper to run and maintain. And, above all, by cutting the amount of energy required the building’s impact on global warming is minimised.

Passive ventilation systems, good insulation and an emphasis on natural lighting are the keys to green design, coupled with a commitment to the use of ecologically responsible building materials. Explaining how this works in a large building such as the Inland Revenue offices is complex, but a single, smaller building can encapsulate the fundamental principles of green design. The solar house, a small country house near Wakeham in Sussex, is just such a building. This has recently been completed as a deliberate exercise in solar house design by the innovative classical architect Robert Adam working with Ray Maw, an expert in solar heating, for Harold Carter.

Orientation is critical. Green design means working with the sun, not against it, taking advantage of the heat it gives off to minimise the need for artificial heating, but ensuring that in the height of summer the building does not over-heat. Thus the solar house is orientated north-south. The north or entrance front presents a massive elevation to the visitor with thick, heavily insulated walls and small windows, so that as little heat as possible is lost. By contrast the south front is 60 per cent glass, allowing the sun to heat the central, two-storey hall which has a massive, solid floor to retain heat and acts as a radiator warming the whole house. Air is drawn into the hall at ground level, warmed and then pulled up through the house by the tall chimneys. At the same time the portico shelters the hall from direct sunlight in summer, so preventing overheating, but in winter when the sun is low it does not prevent the hall being bathed in sun. All the windows are triple-glazed to reduce heat loss through the glass.

Many of the ideas behind the solar house and other green buildings were familiar to our Victorian forebears. Visit any Victorian school and you will find high rooms with large windows and ventilation turrets. But the Victorians were let down by primitive technology and a weak understanding of the dynamic of air flows — to put it crudely, single-glazed windows let out too much heat, walls were insufficiently insulated and nobody realised how large the pipes had to be to ventilate a building properly.

Today these problems have been resolved. Triple glazing means that heat no longer seeps out through windows, effective insulation seals walls and roofs, and we now know quite how large the pipes have to be to draw enough air through a building. A glimpse at the great vents of Short Ford & Associates’ Queens Building at De Montfort University, Leicester, gives an idea of the scale required — and how dramatic these can be when incorporated into the design of the building.

There are very few buildings for which green design is inappropriate. It is as critical in tropical countries as in more temperate climes, which is why Ken Yeang has designed what he calls the Bio-climatic Skyscraper and why the houses designed by highly influential Australian architect Glenn Murcutt make no use of air-conditioning, despite being built in some of the hottest places in the world. In countries such as Germany, Austria and the Netherlands green design is so firmly established that it has become the norm, not the exception. In France it defined the form of the new law courts in Bordeaux designed by Richard Rogers, who has taken the ideas developed there even further with his new Welsh Assembly building in Cardiff.

Green design is essential for low-cost housing where minimal energy demands result in low fuel bills for those who need to husband every penny they have. Thus the principles of green design underlie the experimental pair of semi-detached houses which the rising young architectural practice Sergison Bates has just completed for the William Sutton Housing Trust in Stevenage. Orientation is carefully considered, the timber structure is made out of recycled or waste materials, and an innovative breathing construction means that despite the heavy insulation the building remains at a constant humidity, minimising problems such as mould, parasites and asthma which might otherwise flourish.

At Lifschutz Davidson’s new headquarters for CAE Electronics in Sussex the problems are not those of low-income families but of a high-tech company with large numbers of computers. Usually it is assumed that the heat they generate can only be countered by air-conditioning. But the architects have shown that by integrating the architecture, structure and services to create a low-energy building utilising passive cooling and high levels of natural ventilation and daylight even the most demanding IT company can be accommodated in a green building.

Green design is a virtuous circle. The buildings it creates are more attractive places in which to live or work. They are cheaper to run in the long term and they are environmentally responsible. So why is green design still seen as problematic? The difficulty does not lie with the architects. When I was asked to write this article I thought I would have to cast around for examples until I realised that virtually every architect I had talked to in the past two months had automatically discussed issues of green design, not because it was unusual but because it was central to their thinking. Nor does the problem lie with the technology. Inevitably there is more to learn, but the principles are established and the materials proven. No, the problem is much more insidious. It lies with the blinkered attitudes of the big financial corporations who ultimately fund most new building. It is no coincidence that all the examples cited above are by architects working directly for the client who intends to use the building, whether it is a Government department, a private individual, a housing association or a high-tech company. But these are the exceptions. Most buildings are built speculatively by developers relying on institutional funding and most institutional funders still demand fully serviced, airconditioned buildings for offices or are only worried about the immediate construction costs of private houses, not their long-term running costs.

2 thoughts on “Talking Green Design

  1. Physical structure has important effects on humans. It is really hard to stay aware of the environment when you are an architect. A friend of mine has told me that more and more it is becoming a major focus of most builders these days.

  2. If I am to become an architect, I want to make sure my works will not affect the environment. At least not in ways that will directly ruin it.

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