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By: John Nelson

In our modern society we have become too dependent on the use of mechanical systems
to allow for comfortable living and in turn have fed the fire for many more eco-logical prob-
lems. But in our ancient cultures there are hundreds of structures that use effective climate con-
trol without the use of mechanical systems. I believe their success was in their consideration of
the four elements earth, air, fire, and water. Through time they learned to use and protect them-
selves from these elements but in our modern day society we have let go of those old principles
and have become dependent on an effective but environmentally costly alternative.
All around our cities we can see examples of buildings that have failed to con-sider these
four elements in design. Some of the easiest examples are many of our so-ciety’s commercial
buildings starting with the large commercial warehouses to the many office buildings. These
buildings have become over reliant on mechanical systems and their pocket books which has
left simple building design fall to the way side. With this bad standard our buildings have be-
come a drain on society. Though with our society now realizing this downfall I think these four
basic elements are a good place to start when considering an environmental friendly building
design. When using these old and reliable techniques with the advancements of modern build-
ing technologies we should be able to quickly change the built world’s energy efficiency.
To achieve this efficiency I hope to show the importance of considering the four elements
in design. I will show the unique qualities of each element along with the benefits of using
them as a whole. I hope to reintroduce the old and effective techniques along with some of the
modern uses of each element. I have also looked into some of the philosophies behind these el-
ements and would like to show how these old thoughts should again be considered in the design
of a sustainable building. Then as a final note I will look at how these elements can bring sen-
suality and or spirituality into the built world.
“Earth may be understood both as the structural founda-
tion and as a source of sustenance, not only for physical life,
but also the spirit” Chip Sullivan (2002). When using the earth
I have found it important that we reconsider its use as a build-
ing material. In addition I have found it equally important
to consider the vegetation it supports and how we use it for rammed earth home
protection and as a passive system. I do understand that
we currently use earth in both these ways already but I feel
that recently we have lacked some creativity and in most
instances use this element for aesthetics forgetting its func-
tional uses.

Earths inherent properties make it an excellent build-
ing material. Though already being used in many ways
such as brick and concrete I feel there is still plenty of new
opportunity. Techniques shown in Earth Building (2008)
such as rammed earth, cob, or straw bale construction are all
unique ways to use the earth as building material. Creative
methods such as these I think are great things to consider
since they can be affordable, sustainable, and aesthetically
pleasing. Another strong advantage of earthen materials is
their ability to store and slow the transfer of heat, which is
referred to as thermal mass. Lechner (2009) has shown in rammed earth home
his book how using materials with high thermal massing
is an excellent way to control night and day temperature
swings in a wide range of climates. Sullivan (2002) also
looks into how you can take advantage of the effects of
thermal mass on subterranean spaces. He goes on to show
how when combining this cool space with airflows it can ef-
fectively cool the rest of the building. There are also mod-
ern technologies such as geothermal systems that utilizes
the thermal massing of the earth as a whole. Geothermal
is a great option for a more sustainable heating and cool-
ing system that uses the earths inherent thermals mass to
heat or cool the outdoor air for interior use. Lechner (2009)
explains how at a certain depth the earth maintains a steady
temperature so in a geothermal system the air is vented
down to this depth where it will then change to that tem-
perature so when it returns
to the building it can provide heating or cooling. These
new technologies along with reevaluating the materials
inherent properties are all reasons to consider earth when

Another way to look at the earth is in the life it sup-
ports. Our history has shown many ways in which people
used to take advantage of vegetation to cool, shade, and
protect their homes. But in or current society we mainly
use vegetation as a purely decorative element. But Sulli-
van (2002) has shown us some techniques such the boscoes
and the pineta that were landscape forms from the time of
the Romans and Greeks. Both of these techniques used
landscape elements to create microclimates. They gener-
ally created large shaded areas that when combined with
airflows would bring cool air into the home. But Sullivan
goes on to show how vegetation can also be used to protect
from the cold winter winds or provide seasonal shading to
building faces. Including vegetation in the surrounding
site and building can also help in purifying the air and soil
of the surrounding site. Another old technique discussed
by lechner (2009) was green roofs, which are finding their
way back into the built world since they can provide a way above an example of
to manage storm water, insulate the roof, and provide a green space for vegetecture, below a
your building. As for modern techniques there has been a new move- sucessfull green roof
ment called “Vegitecture”. I learned of Vegitecture from Jason King’s
Lecture where he informed me of this movement that has looked at how
to return this element to the built world through components such as
green roofs, vertical greening, green walls, and much more. Many of
these techniques in Vegitecture can be used functionally for shading,
insulating, and purifying while also being aesthetically pleasing. As you
can see there are many ways in which we can use vegetation beyond
decorative flowers.
Air and airflows are constantly present but recently our
society has turned away from natural ventilation in our institu-
tional spaces. Many of our institutional and commercial build-
ings have completely sealed their buildings allowing for only
mechanical cooling. But I hope to show the importance of re-
turning to natural airflows for both curving energy requirements
and for creating more comfortable spaces and landscapes. So
let’s start by looking at how we can use passive techniques to
cool and protect us from airflows

Utilizing Air Flows
As I have shown above many of our buildings are be-
ing built without operable windows and in turn trapping all the
solar and radiant heat throughout the day. Sul-
livan (2002) goes through many old and effective
techniques such as porches, evaporative cooling,
high ceilings, and subterranean cooling. These
techniques utilize shade, water, and earths thermal
massing with air to cool spaces with natural energy
flows. Each of these old techniques is a valid and
effective way of cooling that should always be
considered to reduce our dependency on mechani-
cal systems. Sullivan (2002) also discusses many
landscape elements such as arbors and shaded
walks that are also great ways to use the elements
earth and air to create comfortable spaces. By
using these landscape elements
you can create both sheltered
areas form the wind along with
shaded areas to cool the air and
protect from the sun. Again by
simple considering this element
we can help protect our built
world from uncomfortable wind
tunnels and relearn to use the air
for comfort cooling.
Alternative Energy
As for energy efficiency a great way to start would
be with operable windows along with many of the tech-
niques mention above. These passive methods are tried
and true methods through time and should never be for-
gotten but instead implemented and redesigned into our
modern day and age. But our advances in technology
have shown us a great modern technique to use and col-
lect wind power. Windmills have been used for a long
time now but with modern improvements they have prom-
ise to be a new sustainable energy source for our society.
Though when talking with Bruce Isaak (personal interview
conducted October 10, 2009), who works with Minnkota
Power Industry, we discussed some of the current prob-
lems with wind turbines, which were the maintenance
costs that are too high, a life span that is too short, and
the unreliability of the wind. These current problems are
driving up the cost and keeping them from becoming more
than a supplementary source of energy but with each day
there are advancements in this field that are making them
more and more feasible as an alternate energy source. I
think this is a great example of technology pairing with an
old technique to make possible a new energy source. This
type of innovation I think can and has been applied to each
of these elements and I hope to encourage this type of cre-
ative innovation.
When considering the element fire I will be looking at
how the sun impacts the built world. Since the sun is an energy
source for almost all living things I feel it is important that we
as an organism also know how to use and protect ourselves
from the sun. I will be using this section to stress the impor-
tance of sun as a light source and how it affects the heating of a

Lighting Aesthetics
Now that we no longer require
the sun as a light source we have begun
to lose sight of its aesthetic power. Our
modern day buildings have become
dominated by man made light that has
given us a stable lighting throughout
the building but has lost the power that
natural lighting can bring. A space
defined by natural lighting can have a
much more profound effect on a person
both physically and mentally. Lechner
(2009) looks at some techniques used
to pull lighting into space such light
selves, sunspaces, cleresto-ries, and
sunlight’s. Using these elements and
always considering natural day lighting
can quickly help to improve your struc-
tures lighting variance.

Solar Energy
Day lighting can also greatly benefit or hinder our spaces
since natural lighting also delivers a large amount of heat. But
by considering this element in the design process we can eas-
ily use the suns heat to our advantage. One of the most im-
portant things to consider is the orientation of
the building. Lechner (2009) has show that
southern orientation can make an 80% differ-
ence in the efficiency of a building. Knowing
how the sun path affects our design is step one
in considering the element fire and sadly one
of the things that is often forgotten. Though
beyond just collecting sunlight we can use it
with an already mentioned technique, thermal
massing. Thermal massing can protect us from
a hot day as it takes time for the suns energy
to transfer through the mass and it also stores
heat and radiates it into the building at night.
This can be used in cool climates to collect and
store heat in the building during cool winter
months utilizing the greenhouse effect. This ef-
fect can be beneficial in circumstance mention
above but it can also cause overheating, which
is why we should also be concerned with how
to protect our building from the sun. Lechner
(2009) shows solar shading to be the best way
to protect a building from the sun and mentions
shading devices such as horizontal overhangs,
vertical fins, eggcrate shading, and moveable
shading devices. Though as effective as the
passive solar methods are Lechner (2009) also
looks into the how photovoltaic’s can help in top - solar shading
curving energy cost of the building. Lechner shows that in the bottom- photovoltaic’s
right areas photovoltaic’s or sometimes called solar panels can
be an excellent energy source that is sustainable, nonpolluting,
reliable, and at a low cost. By using all of these techniques we
can make fire into a friend of the built world rather than the
enemy that drives up the energy bill.
Again in this day and age our society has lost our concern
for how to use water to our advantage. With the advancement
in our society water has been become an over-looked resource
but by taking another look at this resource we can find ways to
take advantage of our graywater and rain water. Water is also
unique in its ability to both cool and heat space. But let’s first
look at ways of conserving and reusing our waste water and
rain water.

When looking at water conservation there
are multiple examples in our old cultures. Sullivan
(2002) shows how cultures used cisterns to both
collect water and slowly deliver it to plants over
time. These same concepts have been reinstated
in modern systems called gray water systems. Ac-
cording to Ludwig’s website gray-
water is any water used in the home other than that
which is used in toilets. A graywater system takes this water
and stores it in tank to be used for our
landscapes. Ludwig (2009) also shows
that gray waters is an excellent way to
reduce water usage, ease the strain on
purification plants, and help with plant
re-growth. These systems can also be
used with butterfly roofs or just tied
into gutter systems to collect the annual
rain water. This water can then be used
to maintain landscapes without have to
expel energy to have it purified.
Heating and Cooling
Water also has many properties that
make it an excellent element for heating and
cooling. As we have talked about earlier
water when paired with air or fire can allow
for evaporative cooling. It also has very high
thermal massing so when paired with the sun
can store and radiate heat into your spaces.
Lechner (2009) has actually shown that water
is better than the element earth when it comes
to thermal massing. Being so you can use
water stored in pipes or bags to store this heat.
The bags are generally used on roofs so that
they can be heated during the day then insu-
lated during the night to help reduce night and
day temperature swings. While using tubing
for thermal massing or other creative way of
storing the water such as in wine bottles can
be used to help again maintain temperature
swings but also add an interesting aesthetic
element to the building. Though when con-
sidering these systems its important to take
into account the adverse affects the water
could have if it where to leak or spill into the
structure. But like all things water has its ups
and downs though by taking the time to study
this element there is plenty of opportunity for
it to further a buildings design.

top - example of evaportive cooling

bottom- themal massing water tubes
Tao of Building
When looking into the sustainability of our built world
I think it is important to consider the philosophy of these ele-
ments. In the Tao of Architecture Chang (1956) references
some of Lao-tzu thoughts saying that Taoists consider life as
a cycle with “nonbeing” being between life and
death but with there never being an ending. I
think this concept is valuable to consider in sus-
tainable architecture. As Chang (1956) put it
“mans creation no matter how durable, is bound
to vanish.” This is exactly why we should be
thinking also of how our buildings will transcend
through time. How will they breakdown during
their non-being and how can they be reused in
their rebirth. This is but another reason to consid-
er some of our simple earthen materials for build-
ing because of their ability to be easily broken
down into another material. Beyond sustainabili-
ty we can look at how Taoism has informed some
of Fingerhuths (2004) observations of sensuality.

Fingerhuth (2004) has done extensive research on mod-
ernism’s effect on the city. He let Taoism inform him on some
of the faults of modernism which I think he previewed well
with this statement, “All aspect of humankind, not just its ra-
tionality, should be considered in urbanism.” He goes on to
show that modernism was defined by thinking but left intuition,
feeling, and sense behind. But Taoism stresses that things are
defined by their opposites and without their
opposites they are left without meaning. He
goes on to show how modern architecture was
lacking because of this unbalance but I feel
utilizing the four elements is an excellent way
to return sense and feeling to the built world.
Reconsidering these elements when building
can help to return the essence of nature into the
built world. By doing so I feel this would give
back a buildings sensuality and spirituality.
Annotated Bibliography
Chang, A.T. (1956). The Tao of Architecture. New Jersey, Princeton: University Press.

Chang discussed the relation of architecture with the philosophy of Taoism. He went
through many of the strong points of taoism and discussed how to use that philosophy in re-
lation with architecture and living. When relating this to the four elements I plan to relate to
tao phi-losophy of life being a cycle from birth to death to non-being and back again to birth.
This is a great way to think about how we use materials and how the four element can work
back into each other or back down to themselves when used as building materials.

Fingerhuth, C. (2004). Learning from China The Tao of the City, Boston, MA:

The author discusses different aspects of a city along with history and how they affect
our perceptions of the city. When looking at history he framed it in architectural movements
what changes they brought to the city and pointed out what we can learn from these changes.
Though I was personally interested in his deeper look at chinese philosophy and the city. He
looked at how using the teachings of tao and following feng shui we can break free of the
modern era and return to spaces that invoke thinking, intuition, sense, and feeling. I hope to
show the importance of the four elements in invoking sense, and feeling.

Sullivan, C. (2002). Garden and Climate, New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Companies

This book has a great overview of prior methods used to implement the four element
in architecture and landscape architecture. It starting block for me in understanding the roots
of how to use these elements to benefit space. It also provide excellent case studies and ex-
amples of each individual technique. I plan to use this book to look at the basic methods of
using the four elements. It has also been a great help in informing me of the many possibili-
ties of each element along with excellent examples of where and how the method was used.

Slessor, C. (2004). Building with the elements. Architectural Review, v. 216 (n. 1291, p. 54-
55) Retrieved October 5, 2009 from
EBSCO databases - Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals

This article looked at how we should address the four elements in architecture. They
looked at how they may be used as symbols along with ways in which we can protect our-
selves from and utilize these elements. I personally liked this article because it was close to
what I plan on writing about so it was interesting to see what they found to be important. It
also brought to my attention a useful way of looking at the elements which was “we must
rediscover our imme-morial, intuitive relationship with the elements.”
Annotated Bibliography
Lechner, N. (2009). Heating, Cooling, Lighting Sustainable Design Methods for Architect,
Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons

This book has been an excellent source of sustainable methods of the architectural
design. The book is mainly about passive systems of architectural design and way in which
to implement them into design. I have personally found it useful in finding specifics on the
methods of using these elements in design. It has also helped inform me on some of the
more modern technologies of the sustainable design.

Earth Building (2009). retrieved October 7, 2009, from Waitakere city council official

Earth Building is a paper covering know technique of using the earth as a building
mate-rial. It explain the advantages of using the earth as a material along with the ways in
which each style of earth construction should be used. This was extremely informational for
me and was a quick way for me to learn about the multiple ways of working earth. I also
enjoyed many of the pictures that should how far you could take this material along with the
way it could effect the feel of a space. It was a great source and helped further my under-
standing of this element.

Ludwig,A. (2009) Graywater information central. Retrieved October 24, 2009, from
Ludwigs website:

This site was a great place to learn about graywater system advantages and disadvan-
tages. He has a large amount of information posted about these systems along with links,
Q&A, and much more. It was a great place for me to learn more about this systems so that I
could ac-curately speak on the subject. The source again was useful to forward my knowl-
edge on this system so that I could relay it in my paper.

King, Jason. “Vegitecture.” ALA autumn lecture series. Fargo, North Dakota. 16 Oct, 2009.

Jason King’s lecture covered the movement of “Vegitecture” in architecture and land-
scape architecture. He covered some of the main focuses of the movement along with ways
of implementing them. He also discussed a number of case studies some of which he had
work with himself. His lecture help better inform me on this movement and some of its ide-
als. It also was great to discovery more ways to use the earth along with ways of implement
them into de-sign. The lecture was an excellent source of information for my design career
and this paper.