Paper on Design Pedagogy for Energy Conserving Architecture Accepted at ICSDEC 2016

Just received notice that my paper for the International Conference on Sustainable Design, Engineering and Construction, “Expression and evidence, advances in architecture studio pedagogy,” was accepted for presentation and eventual publication through Elsevier/Science Direct. The paper is another partial chapter toward my book project developing a design studio pedagogy to address resource conservation and enhance quality of life of building users.


Guest lecture on healthy buildings

I had the privilege of lecturing on my design and building experience at a University in Madrid this past fall semester. The subject of the lecture, presented to an eager audience of about 40 masters students and 10 faculty at UCJC, was the use of passive design strategies in the construction of academic buildings. Strategies I continue to explore in k-12 and higher ed applications include passive solar, daylighting, and natural ventilation. These are almost always hybridized with mechanical systems, especially in Midwest USA applications where both heating and cooling are expected of owners. The approaches almost always require “training” of building users, and the nature of the training usually is in response to a cultural expectation and attitude of building automation (automated comfort controls, lighting controls, etc.). What I have found is that the passive building approach, one that has any hope whatsoever of really reducing energy usage and utility costs, requires an intentional effort on the part of the building owner and users. Often, it is the building user, more than the systems, that require the most care. In this way, future architectural practice will most certainly include the education of the owner and user groups to optimize the effectiveness of any comfort control system, passive or active. I dismiss the notion that we can somehow design low energy or high performance buildings without changing our cultural expectations. This flies in the face of conventional approaches that seek to solve technological problems with more technology, but nevertheless it is true. Low energy is directly related to “low tech/smart design” in my observation. The link to the newsclip, in Spanish, is here.

Sand Ranch

There is an exciting project developing in the Sandhills of Nebraska. I’m calling it “Sand Ranch,” an obvious homage to the wonderful work at Sea Ranch, CA and in particular architect Obie Bowman’s work there, and it is an off-grid residence for a ranching family. Contacted by a college friend through Facebook, we’ve started a client-driven collaboration toward a carbon neutral residence featuring earth berm, super insulated envelop, solar responsive south envelop features, stack induced cross ventilation, geothermal heat exchange, radiant floor and panels, solar hot water and solar well operations, and other juicy combinations of closed-loop strategies. Programmatically, it includes sleeping for the family of 8, a large family gathering space/kitchen/hearth, a contemporary canning kitchen and cellar, and aquaponics/hydroponics greenhouse. 

SFHS a real winner for sustainable passive design and contemporary architecture

The project that has consumed most of my creative energy in the past two years has finally come to a close. Working closely with a great team of Marty Serena, Dave Dankert, and Mike Karkowski at Serena Sturm Architects in Chicago, we have accomplished a remarkable school addition that is projected to operate on a 60% reduction of energy, and is complemented by a 20% on-site renewable energy portfolio. Daylighting alone, and especially top lighting in the labs, coached by Jim Benya’s very good work for the California school system, will reduce energy consumption by about 15-20%.  Passive solar design will create boost energy in the winter months with south facing glazing. Whole building flush out potential with a manually operated natural ventilation system overriding the mechanical system will ensure maximum possible fresh air supply, on demand by the user. We expect this facility will become a case study for passive design of schools in the region.

High Performance School Nearing Completion

The high school addition at St. Francis is nearing completion.

North elevation from Roosevelt Road

North elevation oblique

West elevation oblique

North elevation close up

South elevation oblique, demonstrating effective use of shading canopy and cantilevered form.

In-progress physics lab with disbursed daylighting (there are no lights on in this photograph!)

Double-loaded corridor, yes, boring, no. Daylighting pools create texture and visually/spatially interesting cadence along the hallway.


I attended an excellent seminar today by Erik Olsen of Transolar Klimaengineering-Stuttgart, and the director of their NYC office. The theme was passive thermal design and he reiterated a number of passivity values in contemporary architecture and engineering. In addition to my own growing attention to intentional, if not simplistic, redundancy in construction and ventilation systems, as opposed to modern strategies of over-mechanization, Erik touched on the delicate issues of integrated design processes, user involvement in design scheming, and post construction tuning and balancing. The irony in the use of natural ventilation and other primitives, is that they actually require more sophisticated engineering to meet user performance expectations. The second issue, not a small one, is that to design for natural ventilation requires significant understanding of building codes that are generally designed around mechanical ventilation assumptions. We found during the design of the Weber Center at Judson University, for instance, that since the building is a “mixed-mode” naturally ventilated building, that it was both mechanically and naturally ventilated, making it even more complicated.

Systems thinking is the way of the future in architecture production; we have seen this now for several years. Yet lessons of the past inform contemporary systems thinking, with passive design at the heart of the matter. Passive buildings are not only better Energy Usage Intensity (EUI) performers, but they are typically more comfortable and more stable interior environments for living and working.

Unfortunately, there are precious few American engineers, even in Chicago, with the possible exception of dbHMS, who can handle the creative thinking necessary to work out unconventional strategies (an oxymoron really, since most of the strategies are simply pre-1950’s refrigeration and equipment) required for aggressively passive building design. Erik reassured me that such competitive thinking is on the way here, as it is in Europe, where energy conservation is a given not a preference or marketing ploy.

High Performance School Under Construction

Some of my recent work includes the design and energy scheming of a new addition to an existing private college prep high school in the Chicago area. This 20,000 g.s.f. addition promises to be one of only a handful of LEED platinum, high performance schools, in the country. It consists of a lower level library learning center and an upper level suite of six science labs. The use of daylighting is prevalent throughout, and the library uses a stack induced cross ventilation strategy during the swing months for energy conservation. The library staff can push a button and the natural ventilation mode will over-ride the mechanical system. The building meets the 2030 Challenge for energy conservation, performing at 60% below national standard EUI. On-site renewable energy will provide 75% of the electric load required by the facility.

View from the southwest, with deep facade on south for solar gain control, passive solar, and daylighting.

Northwest elevation

Six concept sections that document key strategies for the passive systems in the architecture of the addition.

Interior view of library with south glazing to the left of the photograph. Notice daylight penetration, but not direct solar gains on this south glazing.

Science lab/classroom with movable desks in the center half of the room, top lighting skylights to balance the daylighting from the rear of the classroom, and contemporary feel that transitions the archetypal science lab from a stuffy cave into a place of discovery and exploration.

Having fun with my zero energy class during a construction site visit