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.