Sustainability isn’t just wind turbines and carbon emissions legislation. Design professionals can have a positive effect on the environment by taking the local climate into consideration when modeling their projects.
“Architecture was originally all about responding to the local environment and climate,” says Nate Kipnis, FAIA, LEED BD+C, founder and principal of Kipnis Architecture + Planning. “Classic styles of architecture are in fact the result of generations of trial and error responding to a series of local challenges, the biggest one usually being climate.”
Kipnis points to the shape, orientation, exterior detailing, and floor plans of older homes as an example of this climate-sensitive design approach. “The location of the kitchen, which traditionally was the only room that produced heat, was typically located in the northeast corner of the house, where it would get early morning sun to warm up the space but was naturally shaded for the rest of the day,” Kipnis says. “The shotgun houses of the American South allowed for breezes to flow though the floor plan from the front to back and the wrap-around porches of Spanish Colonial homes provided relief from the direct sun while still encouraging natural ventilation.”
If taking the climate into consideration makes structures so much more energy-efficient, why do many modern houses seem so unsuited for their environment? François Lévy, AIA, co-founder of Lévy Kohlhaas Architecture, notes that some architects take a “band-aid” approach to their projects, only thinking about climate-related features, like insulation or window performance, after the fact. “A more beneficial approach is to be aware of your climate and take cues from it to optimize a building's form and orientation from the very beginning,” Lévy says. “Designers should use analytical tools, like the Heliodon tool in Vectorworks with Renderworks software, to visualize and quantify how the sun affects the building, how much glass is appropriate for a given orientation, how to mitigate heat gain depending on climate, and so forth.”
Beyond solar studies, Vectorworks software also allows designers to create customizable, powerful worksheets for sustainable design needs. “I use a custom rainwater harvesting tool that calculates the optimum rainwater tank size for a given project based on derived roof area and rainfall data,” Lévy says. “Similarly, I use a worksheet tool to calculate approximate airflow for a thermal chimney, passive ventilation, and cooling based on the stack effect.”
Combining passive systems with active measures is a simple way for designers to impact carbon emissions, one building at a time. “Designers should look to reduce energy needs as much as possible first, and then look for alternative methods for meeting those needs,” Lévy says. “Once I've taken the climate challenges into account and envisioned what could be done to lessen those impacts, I look at applying alternative energy measures, like solar cells or ground-source geothermal cooling systems. As a general rule of thumb, every $1 spent on passive measures like insulation is equivalent to roughly 10 times that amount spent on alternative energy generation, like solar or geothermal.”
Kipnis echoes this sentiment, adding that designers should look to the past for examples of best practices when it comes to passive systems. “The challenge today is to take the best parts of historic sustainable design and merge them with modern conveniences,” Kipnis says. “To start designing in this way, gain a solid understanding of how homes in the area historically resolved various issues such as natural ventilation, daylighting, heating, and cooling. Start with a logical design response to the local environment and modifying from there, as opposed to designing in a vacuum.”
If you’re ready to start designing with climate sensitivity in mind, check out the new Energos module coming in Vectorworks 2016. Based on the respected Passivhaus calculation method, Energos give you a dynamic gauge of your models’ energy performance as you’re designing.