3 Stories About Regional Architecture

The End of 2008
Creative Commons License photo credit: tripleman

Over at Inventing Green, Alexis Madrigal looks at the adoption of air-conditioners. He talks about how the rise of electrical cooling seems to have lead to a crash in regional building techniques.

“Of course, the use of air conditioning allowed homeowners to enjoy a new degree of comfort, but a goodly portion of the residential air-conditioning load simply replaced the comfort once provided — at little environmental cost — by good design,” Rome writes.

The whole thing put me in mind of three incidents that highlight the critical importance of a regional context in usable architecture.

1. Done Well

A few years ago I went on a tour of the then under-construction Earth Rangers Wildlife Center in Ontario. It’s a very green building, LEED gold rating and all that. They were showing us the tech and how liquid running through the building kept it cool and how tall ceilings moved hot air away from employees and on and on about how they were keeping the temperature down. This is Canada, where the main problem, you’d think, is keeping warm. Judging by my utility bills, it certainly is.

One of the students asked the project manager about that and he looked genuinely surprised. Heating was an afterthought, a solved problem — you just needed to keep the place insulated. And then he went back to explaining all the clever cooling solutions.

2. Done Badly

I remember visiting my parents when they were house-sitting on Salt Spring Island. The proud owners had their home custom built, using a design from California. The result was an unusable disaster.

Everything about the house had clearly been intended to keep a desert home pleasantly shaded. An overabundance of sunlight is not a problem in heavily-treed, often cloudy, British Columbia. They had to keep the indoor lights on pretty much all day long. Even so, the house felt dank, dark and dismal.

3. Done Badly, Then Fixed

In Halifax, I used to deliver the paper to the Killam Library. The Killam had originally been designed with some warmer climate in mind (all my stories are about how miserable the weather gets in Canada, I’m realizing). Touches such as an always-dry stream bed that ran from outside the building under the edge into the open air atrium and then into the lobby itself, indicated an architect who imagined a place where water did not freeze for a good chunk of the year.

During the winter, that open-air atrium became a terrifying safety hazard. Take a look at this photo. Surrounded on all sides by warmed glass, the whole thing became a chimney. The heating pushed an enormous volume of air out the top and sucked gale force winds through the pictured entry-way.

In the late 90s, Dalhousie fixed the problem, sealing the top of the atrium with glass. The result was a fully usable (safe) courtyard where students now congregate.

So much depends on thoughtful design.