The Structures of the Future

For discussion of structural innovations ranging from 3D Honeycomb to genomic and self-generating formal systems. All welcome.

Postby adusault » Sun Dec 05, 2010 8:08 pm

I don't know if you are still active but I would like to engage with your group if you are. Here is an article I did a couple of years ago that give you some idea of my perspective.

Is Green Architecture Missing a Footing?
Why Building Geometry Matters
By: Allen Dusault - Monday, April 7, 2008
Source: Allen J. Dusault

In 1853 a rather eccentric gentleman named Orson Fowler published a book entitled, “The Gravel Wall and Octagon Mode of Building”. The book was a best seller of its day and it spurred a short-lived nationwide fade of building houses (and some barns) in an octagon shape, a radical idea then and now (he was also an early proponent of concrete in buildings which was a novelty in his day). It is estimated that 1000 or so octagon houses were built across the country, a fair number of which are still standing. Although the book is all but forgotten its’ message is as relevant today as it was in the 1850s.

The central point of Fowler’s book is so logical and conceptually simple that even a fifth grader can understand its’ meaning, if not its implication. Briefly stated, an octagon is a more efficient shape than a square or a rectangle. The argument of course extends to the three dimensional form of these shapes. This is true both in terms of materials used to construct a building and the amount of volume that needs to be heated and cooled with approximately 25% more wall area for a rectangle than for an octagon. It is simple math – surface area to volume enclosed. Of course the shape doesn’t have to be an octagon – a hexagon, for example, is also more efficient than the ubiquitous rectangle.

Our love affair with the traditional rectangular shape for buildings means we pay added environmental and energy costs not once, but four times over the life of the structure. First, we pay in the construction phase – more building material means higher “embodied energy” in the building. That is a significant portion of the total lifecycle energy. We also pay for the added surface area with more fuel used to heat and cool a building than would be needed with less wasteful shapes. Greater exposed surface area also means greater maintenance and repair on the exterior (and potentially more damage from storms, hurricanes or tornados than a more efficient design). And finally, when the building comes to its end of life, more material must be torn down and hauled away. All that takes energy as well.

So using more efficient building geometry has significant implication not only for energy use but also the amount of wood, steel, concrete, etc consumed. Why then is there little discussion of building shape by the proponents of sustainable architecture? It would be analogous to talking about making cars more fuel-efficient without addressing aerodynamics. Unfortunately, there is no “coefficient of drag” for buildings like we have for passenger cars. But with over 1/3 of domestic energy consumption used in our buildings this is not an insignificant issue, particularly in light of implications for climate change.

But the situation is worse than this characterization suggests, at least for residential construction, because people rarely build in simple rectangular plan. More common are telescoping sections, decorative gables, roofs with dormers and other features that seem to maximize the amount of surface area exposed. There are also exterior protrusions like bay windows, faux turrets, large vaulted front entries and a host of other treatments that consume resources and energy. Surprisingly many of these energy-consuming features are incorporated into award winning “green” and LEED certified buildings. Why are we still incorporating non-functional features that date to the Middle Ages or earlier?

The simple answer is that we are tradition bound when it comes to our living and working environments. To argue for different shapes or design goes against what we like or ‘feels’ comfortable to us. And if you are an architect or a builder, you are not going to build something your customer doesn’t like or want. So here is the challenge. Almost no one, environmentalist included, is talking about alternative geometry as a central consideration in green building design because it is not what the market demands or wants to hear.

However, just because we are emotionally attached to our “plywood nostalgia box” homes doesn’t change physics. This is a critical environmental issue that won’t go away because it is “politically incorrect”. Surface area matters. The good news is our taste in building geometry is largely learned. And we can learn to appreciate new and different shapes, much like the shift in preference that developed for automobiles beginning with streamlining that occurred in the 1930s and 40s. But shifting our preferences in buildings shapes will require more than just waiting for a change in our preferences. A first step is to recognize the benefits of efficient geometries and then incorporate that into our sustainable building vernacular. And that could start a whole new wave of creativity.

When we think of green architecture, we need to start thinking outside the box.
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