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Bioclimatic design, using nature to make buildings comfortable

While the term bioclimatic design is unfamiliar to most people, buildings that use architecture to inexpensively achieve energy efficiency are popping up all over. It’s how we design structures to work in sync with nature, typically to maximize solar heat gain in winter and minimize it in summer.

Frank Lloyd Wright understood bioclimatic design well in his Prairie Style homes, with extended overhangs that permit sunshine in winter from a low-hanging sun and block heat gain in summer when the sun is high overhead.

Recently, I’ve touched bases with several bioclimatic buildings in very different climates; two of them use a similar bioclimatic element, that of serrated west facings. In both buildings (see photos), hot afternoon sun is blocked by swung-out walls, allowing narrow windows to face south (Architerra of Boston designed it). The State University of New York’s Environmental Sciences & Forestry’s new administration building, adjacent to the Syracuse University campus and Carrier Dome, employs nature and physics in multiple ways: with triangular light monitors, photovoltaic cells, a vegetated roof and both a structural and aesthetic use of wood.

That story was particularly fun for me, as I am a Syracuse alum and spent four years on that campus. Around the same time my piece was published in Green Building & Design magazine, I stumbled across the construction project in San Diego that employs a very similar design on its west face (second photo).

Bioclimatic design has been used for millennia, as seen in some of the traditional building methods used by architect/builder Greg Madeen of Durango, Colorado. I describe how he variously uses adobe, rammed earth and pumicecrete for homes, each of which captures the benefits of thermal massing: to hold nighttime’s cool into the day and daytime’s warmth into the night.

Surprisingly, modern glass and steel can employ a type of bioclimatic design, as I describe in my story on the new Las Vegas city hall. This is a mastery of siting, where the intersecting-triangles footprint of this east-west oriented, 309,000-square-foot structure also minimizes solar gain its hot desert climate.

The SUNY-ESF building is on a narrow lot that runs north-south, which forced a long westerly exposure. Architect Ellen Watts (Architerra) describes this as a “misfortune,” one they remedied with angled sun blockers while allowing much light through narrow, south-facing windows in the gaps.

While I failed to capture the name of this building going up near the Gaslamp District of San Diego, it clearly employs the same technique as the Syracuse building to block the hot afternoon sun. Isn’t it interesting how the same method is useful in starkly different climates?

Adobe architecture is familiar in North America. But variations on it are global, historically found in south Asia, northern Africa and the Middle East. It works particularly well in desert climates that have cool nights and hot days.

Russ Klettke is a business and health writer, with experience in sustainable design, law, finance, manufacturing, services, nutrition, fitness and wellbeing, among other areas of interest. Contact him to discuss your communications and editorial needs.

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Russ Klettke

Business Writer

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