Lesson 1 – Sustainable Energy Use in Natural Building

Energy efficiency over the entire life cycle of a building is the most important goal of sustainable architecture.

Architects use many different passive and active techniques to reduce the energy needs of buildings and increase their ability to capture or generate their own energy.

One of the keys to exploit local environmental resources and influence energy-related factors such as daylight, solar heat gains and ventilation is the use of site analysis.

Heating, Ventilation and Cooling System Efficiency

Numerous passive architectural strategies have been developed over time.

Examples of such strategies include the arrangement of rooms or the sizing and orientation of windows in a building, and the orientation of facades and streets or the ratio between building heights and street widths for urban planning.

An important and cost-effective element of an efficient heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) system is a well-insulated building.

A more efficient building requires less heat generating or dissipating power, but may require more ventilation capacity to expel polluted indoor air.

Significant amounts of energy are flushed out of buildings in the water, air andcompost streams.

Off the shelf, on-site energy recycling technologies can effectively recapture energy from waste hot water and stale air and transfer that energy into incoming fresh cold water or fresh air.

HVAC systems are powered by motors. Copper, versus other metal conductors, helps to improve the electrical energy efficiencies of motors, thereby enhancing the sustainability of electrical building components.

Site and building orientation have some major effects on a building’s HVAC efficiency.

Passive solar building design allows buildings to harness the energy of the sun efficiently without the use of any active solar mechanisms such as photovoltaic cellsor solar hot water panels.

Typically passive solar building designs incorporate materials with high thermal mass that retain heat effectively and strong insulation that works to prevent heat escape.

Low energy designs also requires the use of solar shading, by means of awnings, blinds or shutters, to relieve the solar heat gain in summer and to reduce the need for artificial cooling.

In addition, low energy buildings typically have a very low surface area to volume ratio to minimize heat loss. This means that sprawling multi-winged building designs (often thought to look more “organic“) are often avoided in favor of more centralized structures.

Traditional cold climate buildings such as American colonial saltbox designs provide a good historical model for centralized heat efficiency in a small-scale building.

Windows are placed to maximize the input of heat-creating light while minimizing the loss of heat through glass, a poor insulator. In the northern hemisphere this usually involves installing a large number of south-facing windows (north-facing in the southern) to collect direct sun and severely restricting the number of north-facing windows.

Certain window types, such as double or triple glazedinsulated windows with gas filled spaces and low emissivity (low-E) coatings, provide much better insulation than single-pane glass windows.

Preventing excess solar gain by means of solar shading devices in the summer months is important to reduce cooling needs.

Deciduous trees are often planted in front of windows to block excessive sun in summer with their leaves but allow light through in winter when their leaves fall off.

Louvers or light shelves are installed to allow the sunlight in during the winter (when the sun is lower in the sky) and keep it out in the summer (when the sun is high in the sky).

Coniferous or evergreen plants are often planted to the north of buildings to shield against cold north winds.

In colder climates, heating systems are a primary focus for sustainable architecture because they are typically one of the largest single energy drains in buildings.

In warmer climates where cooling is a primary concern, passive solar designs can also be very effective. Masonry building materials with high thermal mass are very valuable for retaining the cool temperatures of night throughout the day.

In addition builders often opt for sprawling single story structures in order to maximize surface area and heat loss.

Buildings are often designed to capture and channel existing winds, particularly the especially cool winds coming from nearby bodies of water. Many of these valuable strategies are employed in some way by the traditional architecture of warm regions, such as south-western mission buildings.

In climates with four seasons, an integrated energy system will increase in efficiency:

  • When the building is well insulated;
  • When it is sited to work with the forces of nature;
  • When heat is recaptured (to be used immediately or stored);
  • When the heat plant relying on fossil fuels or electricity is greater than 100% efficient, and when renewable energy is used.

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