Blog Post 5: Breathable Buildings

Much of contemporary buildings are so tightly sealed and regulated by HVAC systems, they seem to produce their own ideal environments. Sure it’s nice to enter a cool building during a hot summer day, but the constant pumping of air throughout buildings uses vast amounts of energy. Imagining a building that doesn’t use air conditioning system is so hard today and even shocking to most people, but with a continuing decrease in natural resources that power much of electricity today, changes are inevitable. When I think of buildings becoming more sustainable, I often think of ways they can use more renewable energies, however the Addington article opened my mind to new design strategies that could take place in building envelopes. Addington’s new perspective of utilizing building envelopes as not simply a division between interior and exterior boundaries, but as a thickened surface allows for new operations to take place. 

Pre-conceived notions that building envelopes should be tight and not allow for any mixture of inside and exterior air qualities may have seemed inventive with the creation of HVAC systems, but I think in hindsight have created indirect problems such as health. In the nineteenth century, access to fresh air was deemed important in order to avoid tuberculosis and an increase in building ventilation produced more permeable buildings (Addington 14).  Now that we have seen the failure of twentieth century HVAC systems, more architects seek to incorporate innovative building skins. Located in Irun, Spain, Hoz Fontan Architects utilized the building skin as a place that buffered the intense sun and also cooled the interior environment by collecting breezes from the Mediterranean Sea (See Figure 1). 

Figure 1: Exterior view of the Tower designed by Hoz Fontan Architects

From afar the building seems to be like a normal tower, however, by pulling the building skin away from its interior structure, the architects created spaces that allowed for inhabitation. The eight-story building becomes a rectangle that is wrapped up in semi-translucent glazing, which acts as a weather barrier ( These in between spaces create hallways and interior courtyards that are filled with natural plants that also filter and cool the surrounding air (See Figure 2). 

Figure 2:Views of interior courtyards and walkways throughout building

The courtyards created by the thickened skin are both relaxing and peaceful but also provide a natural way of ventilation. I think by looking at architecture through this lens of innovation and thinking about how we can begin to incorporate more sustainable and resilient solutions. Not only does the building reduce the need for HVAC systems, it also provides operable windows in which residents can control the amount of wind that is let in into their individual units. Units also open up onto smaller gardens and doors are able to be open to allow fresh airflow into units (See Figure 3). Unlike HVAC systems, the windows are oriented in a way that captures cross-breezes, is more controllable for individuals and doesn’t use excess energy when unwanted and not needed. I often find myself sitting in classrooms that are too cold and use vast amounts of energy just to cool the temperature of the air. I agree although in theory it seems as though a tighter building envelope would be more ideal for individuals, more innovative ways of embracing openness and porosity within the building skin is more profound. Using energy systems that are already available to us, without the need to produce excess energy already reduces that amount of energy buildings are consuming and the amount of natural resources that are vanishing. 

Figure 3: View into a private resting courtyard

Today there are even more studies concerned with individual health and HVAC systems that are so concerned with regulating building temperatures. “The necessary thermal exchanges for maintaining the health of the body have much larger tolerances than those

that determine sensation, and are also located in different regions of the body” (Addington 16). More studies are proving that being inside constantly regulated temperatures are having negatively impacts on human health. Diseases such as cancer are being studied and possibly linked to buildings that have little no access to fresh natural air. Increased exposure to fresh air and nature also provides mentally relaxing spaces for people. Alternatives to HVAC systems are not only energy saving methods but also provide new opportunities for creative solutions that better everyday life for a variety of people.




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