Energy in Architecture

Sheila Sriprakash

Energy is omnipresent and has been venerated since Vedic times. It is impossible to ignore its powerful dominance. This cultural linkage is ingrained in me since I was a child. Energy forms and shapes life, and possessing energy awareness leads to its judicious use. Architecture stimulates development through optimum use of all energies.

The revolutionary way in which paperless offices work today, and the use of the Internet has drastically reduced consumption required for movement and communication. Automobile companies are aware that it is their responsibility to create models that consume less. Despite these significant achievements, it is imperative to work towards reduction and elimination of irresponsible and thoughtless consumption that throws nature out of balance. The vicious backlash alters weather patterns resulting in devastating climate change.

These building elements offer magical design options besides creating passive architectural responses to the climate.

South Asian Architecture responds to the climate through its characteristic verandahs and courtyards. The inclusion of naturally lit landscaped pockets embellishes the ambience and enlivens design. These “nature punctures” articulate the rigorously built forms. They not only reduce consumption of energy by lighting the space, but also naturally energize the environment. Landscaped courtyards and light shafts have been traditionally used to enhance the livability of buildings. These building elements offer magical design options besides creating passive architectural responses to the climate. Design is about the amalgamation of numerous detailed solutions that are individually energy efficient, that cumulatively reduce consumption while enhancing overall performance.

Converting raw materials into building components requires energy. The structures so built consume energy over their lifetimes. Recycling and reuse of materials conserve the use of materials and the energy required in buildings. Both cement and steel guzzle energy for their manufacture, but it is hard to replace them both. However, they provide exceptional strength and are versatile materials of construction. Discovering materials of construction that provide both high performance and strength while consuming lesser resources using lesser energy to manufacture is the key to conservation.

Designing with locally available material and talent challenges the designer to create unique detailing that responds to a specific place and its people.

The first step in designing energy efficient buildings is to orient and position buildings so as to minimize the sun’s thermal absorption. Even a 50 percent reduction in power requirements for air conditioning and heating can be achieved through right building orientation. The emphasis in countries close to the tropics would be to reduce the heat gained from sunlight and protect the residents from glare. Conversely buildings beyond the tropics would do well to absorb the heat of the sun, and harness as much solar energy as possible. Maximizing the use of natural light reduces the dependency on artificial lighting thereby conserving power. Buildings can be designed to optimize glare free daylight. North facing windows provide glare free light, whereas southern openings in a building brings in the sun’s heat and glare. Openings that permit light from the east and west will require shading devices to obstruct the direct ingress of heat and glare into the interiors of buildings in the tropics. Passive architectural design elements provide a special aesthetic appeal to the exterior of the building by creating a rhythmic play of light and shade. This provides a unique grammar to architectural design based on location.

Technology provides options to prioritize and choose that which maintain a subtle architectural balance, and reciprocate with the macro setting of which we are a part. The use of local materials invariably results in considerable savings. Using locally available building materials makes the construction practices efficient and responsive to the immediate environment. Sensitive use of natural resources ensures sustainability. Designing with locally available material and talent challenges the designer to create unique detailing that responds to a specific place and its people.

A major consumption of energy by the building industry is by the way we cool or heat our buildings. The set temperature and air movement within a building determines comfort. Savings in capital expenses and in running costs can be optimized. Societal norms have a profound impact on energy consumption. Japanese are shifting towards higher set temperatures inside offices by simply doing away with suits and ties as formal business attire. Technological advancements have ensured that our HVAC systems are more efficient. The use of thermal storage techniques and VRV systems are examples of this. Building orientation and passive architectural detailing reduce the load required to run heating and cooling systems. Use of LED lights has resulted in substantial savings of energy. Rating of equipment has ensured efficiency in the running of machines.

By ancient Hindu texts, the “Pancha Boothas" or the five elements-- air, water, fire, earth and space-- maintain the balance of life. They manifest into myriad forms of energy, and their balance ensures harmony in this world. Green house gas emissions are pushing carbon dioxide levels in the environment perilously close to calamitous levels. The melting of the Arctic and receding fresh water glaciers pose threats that cannot be comprehended. Humanity would be wise to acknowledge the role of the elements of energy, and realize that its balance is crucial for survival. Disruption to this subtle balance is the cause of concern and calamities.

The philosophy that rules my design thinking is “Reciprocity.” The ability to understand and acknowledge the unique parameters and compulsions of a place and their people, to evolve inclusive solutions to problems, and to pointedly address concerns while maintaining the environment in a sustainable manner are the fundamentals of Reciprocity in Design. Reciprocity as a philosophy of design respects the subtle balance of nature to ensure sustaining harmony.

Sheila Sriprakash, an architect and urban designer, is the founder of Shilpa Architects (India)

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