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Architecture and energy: a new design outlook

Roberta Morelli

In recent times, sustainability and energy efficiency have become keywords that have increasingly dominated international cultural, scientific and regulatory debates, as demonstrated by the large number of events, studies and publications on these topics, attracting a great deal of attention at all levels of our daily lives. In architectural fields the spread of terms such as bioclimatic, solar, ecological and sustainable used frequently and often inappropriately to qualify specific design processes reveals a paradoxical situation where, in both architecture and urban planning, we have lost the ability to consider all the factors involved in our approach to design. These factors, which include studying climate, solar radiation, energy savings and, more generally, balance in the natural system, represent the fundamental principles of a project and the reference elements for its construction process.1 It is well known that energy is one of the main driving forces of the dynamic process underlying most human activities: the progressive increase in the complexity of exchange relationships has extended the impact of this factor in economic, political and environmental development to far greater areas, expanding the interdependence of all the aspects involved as well as their influence on natural and artificial systems. Despite worldwide warnings about the scarcity of non-renewable energy sources, the consequent disastrous effects of pollution on health and climate, and international conflict connected with procuring these resources, the consumption of fossil fuels continues to increase with global economic expansion at a rate that is no longer acceptable. Operating practices totally disregard the urgency expressed in countless international resolutions demanding categorical and rapid reduction of climatechanging emissions. Identifying adequate solutions signifies the ability to recognize the development potential of modern technological and scientific progress in order to increase the use of all forms of renewable energy (wind and water power, geothermal and solar power, biomass and energy savings) and adopt a new approach based on environmental responsibility.

Since over 40% of the total energy consumption in Europe can be attributed to the building sector (building construction, management and service operation) and dependence levels are expected to require imports to cover 90% of fuel and 80% of natural gas requirements by 2030, eco-efficiency and energy savings must clearly be considered fundamental instruments alongside more rapid and effective methods for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving air quality and limiting energy supply costs. The evolution of energy standards over the last 30 years demonstrates that the development of regulations and legislation has always coincided with particularly important events, such as the emergency that the world is currently facing. For example, the first regulations concerning minimum insulation levels in building construction were issued in the Seventies to face energy supply problems caused by the oil crisis. After the initial results of experiments designed to free buildings from dependence on fossil fuels during the Eighties, practices for building complex systems were developed based on a solar concept. This involved both active and passive strategies focusing on winter requirements. The first mathematical methods and simulation instruments were created during this period to assess the energy behaviour of buildings: today these methods upgraded and expanded are still extremely useful aids in building design. In the mid-Nineties, however, it became necessary to deal with problems connected with the overheating of internal spaces, and regulations began to focus not only on energy loss through transmission, but also loss caused by ventilation and thermal bridges, and began to take a far wider view of the actual energy balance present in buildings.2 Problems involving environmental pollution, the reduction of energy consumption and the progressive depletion of fossil fuel led EU, national and local government bodies in charge of setting out legislative provisions and specific regulations to conduct incisive studies and experiments in the field of eco-efficiency in housing systems. These objectives were laid out in the Euro-

1 M. Nicoletti, Architettura Ecosistemica. Lequilibrio ambientale nella citt, Gangemi Editore, Roma 1998. 2 S. Croce, T. Poli, Case a basso consumo energetico, Il Sole 24ore, Milano 2007.


Sliding wooden panels regulate the shade on the south faade of the Exp Living 2000 building in Kronsberg (Willen Associates).

pean Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (2002/91/CE), issued in order to harmonize the building regulations of Member States with those of countries that had achieved more ambitious efficiency levels. This aspect contributed towards launching a large number of design experiments focused on high energy performance, improving internal environmental comfort and limiting extra costs. This was also aimed at concentrating renewed interest in the residential sector, which represents one of the most important fields in which increased awareness of these aspects must be dealt with in concrete terms. In addition to representing the largest proportion of the fabric of our towns, the housing system is also called upon to provide answers to changing and complex needs in a society undergoing strong transformation. This transformation includes the emergency generated by the latest economic and energy crisis, and must be considered one of the new factors influencing the definition of adequate solutions to increasingly varied and complex needs. Renewed interest in these aspects is producing examples of good practice in Europe, which aspire to become a driving force for a new approach to project design, with impacts proportionate to the mentality and lifestyle of the country that produced them. It is well known that German-speaking countries (Germany, Austria and Switzerland), where the ecological outlook and attitude towards environmental change is deeply rooted in the mentality of an attentive and con-

scientious population, are especially active in building residential complexes with low energy consumption. The original meaning of the basic concept of one of the most advanced European examples the German passivhaus designed by Professor W. Feist in Darmstadt in 1988 adopts a conservative approach suited to the climates of central and northern Europe, basing the energy requirements for internal air conditioning and heating in buildings almost exclusively on direct solar power. Air-tightness and extremely high insulation levels for the building envelope, the complete absence of thermal bridges, reduction of transmission loss and mechanical ventilation installations with heat recovery systems do not simply represent a range of technical benefits: they provide an optimized interpretation of the specific climatic context and a clear expression of answers translated into efficient design solutions. In other words, this refers to a design approach aimed at adequate control of environmental conditions and internal space, initially based on correct analysis of the physical and microclimatic factors of the context in order to assess the critical aspects and potential of the site. This makes it possible to reduce the energy consumption of a passive house to 15 kWh/m per year (compared to the 150200 kWh/m per year of a conventional house), using solar power and renewable sources to their maximum potential and improving the performance of a building that already has the intrinsic potential to save energy. In addition, this model has a consolidated operating practice that was less exposed to conventional limits linked with experimental construction, because it uses technical solutions that are based on the optimization of existing products, involving very low risks for both producers and consumers. Therefore, the basic concept of the passivhaus represents the initial fundamental step towards the design of homes with zero energy consumption and, from here, towards buildings that can be transformed from consumers to producers of energy (plusenergiehaus). This approach, based on recent theories, has already been tested with interesting results and may constitute the most important element in the transfer from the current policy of concentrated energy generation to that of distributed generation. This will be the decisive factor in the medium to long term for the true reduction of CO2 emissions to a level that is compatible with the ecosystem balance of our planet. The establishment of a new concept of energy efficiency in building design, also promoted by the spread of models such as that of the passive house, has recently led to a range of interventions focused on issues concerning environmental sustainability and energy savings. As a simple example, many national programmes were organized to raise public awareness about certain issues, such as the one created by the Finnish government launching a national guideline development plan


aimed at satisfying ecological objectives in the building sector, and public residential buildings in particular. This plan promoted the construction of the first eco-compatible housing complexes (e.g. Vikki in Helsinki). Other programmes introduced experimental innovations in the field of high-standard housing complexes with low energy consumption, such as those built in Kronsberg, Vienna, Linz, Innsbruck, London, Freiburg and Bolzano. Lastly, several important European projects such as CEPHEUS (Cost Efficient Passive Houses as European Standard) were launched in 1998, aimed at experimenting with exporting the passivhaus model to five European countries (Germany, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland and France). They assessed practicability with highly reduced costs and the diversification of design strategy based on where the dwellings would be built. The quality of the most important experiences resulting from these experiments can still be recognized today in the capacity to exploit renewable energy sources, including buried heat exchangers, geothermal heating pumps, solar collectors, photovoltaic panels, wind blades and biomass boilers integrated in a renewed and unified architectural concept. In addition to demonstrating the technical and economical feasibility of this model for a large number of building types and geographical locations, along with the benefits linked with the reduction of CO2 emission, the results of the project have also produced important effects in the world of business and construction, where in certain cases they have promoted the implementation of construction technologies and product performance. Compared to other European countries, Italy still shows strong resistance to a responsible approach to the environment and energy resources: with its 26 million apartments, Italy exceeds European heating consumption rates by 30-40%, and also posts an increase in airconditioning installations of 900,000 units annually. In this picture, it is evident that, in spite of the recent interest in these issues, far more determination is required in Italy in order to spark the needed and profound transformation required in design and construction methods and to change the current situation and circumstances into an important opportunity for renewing our cities. More consolidated European experience could provide important cultural and operational references to help our industries adapt to the growing need for environmental quality and protection. Without entering into a discussion about the complex question of energy certification, it seems that it is no accident that the lack of innovative interventions in residential building in Italy reflects a confusing lack of uniformity in certification systems, which are unable to communicate with each another because they are too often entrenched in positions of local economic self-interest rather than being directed towards the efficiency of shared results. Likewise, it is clearly evident that the

quality of the examples shown by European experience is indicative of consolidated procedures based on the analysis and assessment of the energy and environmental performance of the buildings in question. Considering the widespread certification systems applied in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, the United Kingdom and France, they demonstrate a responsible outlook towards building design and indicate an informed usership that is aware of the added costs, but also of the benefits. For this to occur in Italy as well, it is essential to launch a large-scale operation to integrate the complex aspects connected with a correct vision of the ecosystem, so that projects, research and technological innovation will form a single viewpoint that can put an end to the indiscriminate use of territorial and energy resources, as part of a broader process to regenerate the way we live. First of all, this means taking into consideration the aspects of architectural and urban quality in relation to monitoring project design in terms of form, type, technology and MEP installations. This must be understood as research into a beneficial balance between constructed and natural environments, within the complex systems of physical, spatial and social relationships in urban contexts.3 Focusing attention on saving energy and reducing pollution also means making a set of formal, technological and operational choices within the context of renewed design methods that can translate external environmental variables into technical solutions integrated within a unified architectural concept. However, it is not enough simply to adopt innovative technologies or eco-compatible components
The Muhlweg residential complex in Vienna (H. and J. Kaufmann) demonstrates the potential of using wooden structures o create high-quality housing complexes: insulated elements on the faade, made of prefabricated natural larch, form a protective shell, not only providing excellent thermal insulation, but also creating a colourful and welcoming impact.

A. Battisti, F. Tucci, Ambiente e cultura dellabitare, Librerie Dedalo, Roma 1998.


The sunscreen panel system featured in the residential complex at Lobach in Innsbruck (Baumschlager & Eberle) regulates the suns rays, creating a continuously changing effect on the faade, catering to the residents different needs.

suggesting new opportunities for convergence or simply a shared meeting space, which can assume a role that is not related to circulation but is also technological, social and applied to MEP installations. Likewise, there are new examples of the innovative role assumed by the building envelope which in recent experimental work has adopted the function of controlling the environmental conditions of adjacent spaces to a far greater extent, acting as a selective membrane to regulate the balance between the internal micro-environment and the macro-environment outside the building. In the most innovative cases, this becomes a dynamic interfacing element capable of varying the configuration of its intrinsic components according to the changes in external conditions. Consequently, it provides the most efficient solutions thanks to its own transformation capacity. Current technological progress assigns this role to both the intrinsic properties of specific elements (high-performance glass, phase change materials) and the integration of different strategies (mobile screening, combined physical and MEP installation components). It is the designers role to decide on the most efficient solutions in terms of quality, energy efficiency and cost for each specific context. Another key element of an updated approach is certainly demonstrated by the interaction between structural and MEP installation design and architectural design, and thus by the influence of construction choices to determine the best possible solutions. The capacity to integrate different design levels in a single strategic vision while adopting operating techniques that speed up execution and facilitate maintenance will certainly constitute the strong points of important building projects. The Rosenbach residential area in Bolzano, the first low-energy consumption apartment complex in the Alto Adige region, represents an important reference point because of the extreme care taken with structural and MEP installation design: built on site in only 18 months thanks to the use of particularly suitable prefabrication techniques, this complex is an excellent example of the integration of technological and construction choices, applied in relation to the unitary architectural concept of the building. As noted previously, a complex operation to integrate design strategies must be promoted in order for the concepts of energy efficiency and environmental sustainability to become essential components in more widespread research into architectural and urban quality: designing low-energy buildings does not simply signify adopting technological devices that are then retrofitted, nor does this mean assembling kits of various components in different ways according to the tastes of consumers.4 Certain experiments have been subjected to excessively simple processes with respect to the complexity of the aspects involved, with the proposal of

4 G.W. Reinberg, Le architetture di Georg W. Reinberg, Alinea Editrice, Firenze 1999.

and materials: new technical methods for building processes must also be researched so that the designers and operators involved can also employ flexible and efficient instruments. This means paying close attention during the fact-finding process underlying research in order to find the correct technical instruments for the project, as well as the methodological approach supporting the project, in order to provide innovations that interpret the nature of the locations and encourage the development of public demand for environmental wellbeing. In the excellent examples demonstrated by certain interventions in Europe, it is easy to note the directions of this new design approach in which the main strategies are strongly integrated with the morphological, spatial, formal and technological identity of the project. This is why the criteria derived from the examination of physical and environmental data can be translated into design elements that acquire new value and significance. By way of example, there is the role assumed by the central intermediate space that occupies the total height of certain buildings like those in Kronsberg, Linz or the Lunghezzina in Rome: in a new conception of solid and void systems, this element is not conceived simply as an entrance area, but as a bioclimatic greenhouse that regulates the thermodynamic and energy flows of the structure based on seasonal climatic variations. At the same time, this area forms a new hybrid space, where the concept of private property blends with the environment that belongs to the community,


solutions in which architectural choices have been reduced to being the accessories of a construction, which thus loses its inherent identity as it is completely separated from the nature of the site. A mature and intelligent approach to building design implies the capacity to combine a plurality of factors of various types in a much wider vision of the ecosystem and define a unified system composed of a series of interacting components, akin to a living organism. Proper research into the interdependence of these subsystems forms the essential precondition in order to create quality interventions and renew architectural language using a variety of solutions, without being conditioned by fashions and market trends.5 The basic aim of this new concept is to establish a new design outlook that can overcome experimentation which is fragmented and limited because it is directed exclusively at resolving technical problems of micro-climatic control or is simply focused on the buildings energy assessment. Reorganization on this scale is unquestionably a complex task: the variety of factors being considered, the non-scalarity of the problems connected with environmental sustainability and eco-efficiency, the numerous parties involved and the interrelation of complex systems, such as the environment, man and the urban context, all make this challenge far from simple ... but unquestionably essential. The responsibilities are vast and complex. In order to get the efforts needed to achieve these objectives moving in the right direction, government policy must demonstrate its absolute conviction and desire to achieve efficient results without wasting time in a search for risky simplification, as so often happens, or worse yet social justification with obvious conflicts of interest. As stated above, this commits everyone involved in the construction sector: the administration, which must adopt the measures necessary to encourage the transformation of procedures that have become obsolete because of new requirements; designers, who must rapidly update their expertise to satisfy these new requirements; and constructors, who must see this innovation as an opportunity to grasp the potential of new competitive ideas. There are numerous and varied issues to be addressed. In this context, we must reflect on the developments that architectural production can provide, the influence of design concepts in defining new efficiency requirements, the ways to integrate architecture and technology, and the capacity to incorporate the use of renewable sources in natural and urban landscapes. These and other factors represent the key elements of what must become a new and responsible form of research into environmental quality focused particularly on suburban areas, which all too often have been considered non-places and have been subjected to unscrupulous building speculation with a lack of design capacity concealed behind pretentious real-estate practices. One of the fundamental roles of this reorganization will unquestionably be the definition of strategies for the energy recovery of existing buildings. There is no doubt that this will represent the most far-reaching building activity in Europe over the next few years, and it will undoubtedly be one of the aspects mainly responsible for the effectiveness of the results that are achieved. Performing specific surveys on the condition of existing buildings, implementing design strategies for new constructions and promoting incentives in favour of manufacturers are thus the basis for true innovations in techniques, methods and materials. In order to achieve this, however, in coordinating such processes public interests must take precedence over private ones: government bodies must responsibly promote all actions that can help establish the correct conditions to stimulate the awareness of all those involved consumers, the trade and technical experts in using a heritage that is already badly jeopardized, but without falling into the dangerous trap of building speculation. At the same time, designers and architects must guarantee the quality of their work, in that they must identify approaches that are not guided solely by private economic interests but are dictated by a more mature awareness of the delicate relationship between buildings and the environment. It may well be that renewing the concept of quality in the home also means being able to recognize the fact that end users are not simply consumers, but first

The full-height central entrance in the Expo-Living 2000 building in Kronsberg (Willen Associates) creates an internal microclimatic buffer zone that regulates the thermodynamic and energy flows within the structure, while defining a large light-filled common social area.

A. Battisti, F. Tucci, Qualit ed ecoefficienza delle trasformazioni urbane, Alinea, Firenze 2002.


Details of faade openings in the new Bolzano ProvinceEXPOST headquarters office block (Michael Tribus Architecture). This is the first example of energy regeneration in an Italian government building based on passivhaus standards. The work features the skilful slits in the external roofing insulation, cleverly combining energy efficiency with architectural design quality.

and foremost citizens and inhabitants of our planet. Given the current state of the world, it thus seems more important than ever to recover a well-founded conceptual perception of design in order to construct efficient operating spaces, and define contemporary and future scenarios that are much more responsible and conscientious. In particular, carefully programmed action is considered essential in the following areas: information to a usership that must regain the control and use of resources and technologies in order to formulate quality demand; controlled regulations for the use of energy and territorial resources;

the promotion of strategies for efficiency that are free of market restrictions; the assessment and monitoring of results to be promoted in order to trigger mechanisms for true innovation and efficient creativity. Adopting a critical attitude that can assess the complexity of the aspects involved not simply on a technical and physical level, but also from a cultural and social standpoint represents the essential precondition for a design concept based on human creativity that can transform emergency into evolution, rooting this evolution in history and the collective culture of the community.

SYSTEMS OF CERTIFICATION This section briefly explains some of the terms used the text. Minergie The Minergie is a registered trademark that was defined by the Swiss cantons of Zurich and Berne for the quality certification of new and refurbished buildings, which must satisfy performance standards for living comfort, energy needs and low-cost solutions. HQE (Haute Qualit Environmentale) HQE is a French trademark used as a voluntary instrument for certification of the environmental quality of new and refurbished buildings. It is a multi-criteria system, based on the fulfilment of 14 objectives, which promotes buildings whose environmental impact, assessed based on their entire life cycle, is as low as possible. CasaClima This is a method for the energy certification of buildings that uses a set calculation method. Defined in the province of Bolzano, it went into effect in 2005 as an instrument to aid professionals in evaluating the energy class of new and existing buildings. Passivhaus This defines construction standards based on the integration of technologies and appropriate materials guaranteeing high living quality and significantly lower energy consumption by eliminating conventional heating systems.