More than half the world’s population lives in dense urban areas. Uncomfortably loud restaurants, stores, hotels, or offices are enough to keep patrons away. When planning a meeting or even a night out with friends, we are conscious of selecting a location where we can focus and hear one another. The noisier our world gets, the more difficulty we have focusing on the sounds we actually want to hear.
In a 2016 survey of 400 employees in the U.S., Saint-Gobain found that office building occupants commonly complained about poor lighting, temperature, noise, and air quality, leading the company to deduce a need for improved lighting and thermal comfort in buildings while also maintaining low energy consumption and freedom of design for architects and clients. Their solution was SageGlass, an innovative glass created first in 1989 and developed over the course of the past three decades. The glass, which features dynamic glazing protecting from solar heat and glare, simultaneously optimizes natural light intake. A sustainable and aesthetic solution, SageGlass’ adaptability to external conditions dispels the need for shutters or blinds.
Ventilation serves two main purposes in a room: first, to remove pollutants and provide clean air; second, to meet the metabolic needs of the occupants, providing pleasant temperatures (weather permitting). It is well known that environments with inadequate ventilation can bring serious harm to the health of the occupants and, especially in hot climates, thermal discomfort. A Harvard University study demonstrated that in buildings with good ventilation and better air quality (with lower rates of carbon dioxide), occupants showed better performance of cognitive functions, faster responses to extreme situations, and better reasoning in strategic activities.
Just before the global lockdowns began in response to the spread of the widely discussed COVID-19, we met with Saint Gobain experts at their new headquarters in Paris to discuss an extensive investigation conducted in 2019, with the aim of understanding the transformations that architecture and construction have experienced in recent years. After an interesting exchange of ideas, we chose the most relevant topics to be analyzed in depth by our team of editors, resulting in a series of articles that combined the trends identified with the unexpected events that occurred during 2020, connecting them directly to architectural design.
There was a time when people appreciated self-contained architecture, in which the building envelope would not function as a moderator between the climate outside and the interior environment but rather as an inert and independent barrier. Countless mechanical devices and electrical ventilation, heating, and cooling equipment. A real machine.
At the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, curator Alejandro Aravena decided to reuse 100 tons of material discarded by the previous Art Biennale to create the new exhibition halls. Besides preserving 10,000 m2 of plasterboard and 14 km of metallic structures, the initiative intended to give value, through design, to something that would otherwise be discarded as waste. The project also shed light on another observation: as architects, we generally restrict ourselves to thinking about buildings during the design process, construction phase, and at most through the use phase. We hardly think of what will become of them when they are demolished at the end of their useful life, an issue that should urgently become part of the conversation.
In a predominately urban world that constantly has to deal with complex problems such as waste generation, water scarcity, natural disasters, air pollution, and even the spread of disease, it is impossible to ignore the impact of human activity on the environment. Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time and it is urgent that we find ways to slow down the process, at the very least. Toward this end, our production, consumption, and construction habits will have to change, or climate change and environmental degradation will continue to diminish the quality and duration of our lives and that of future generations.
Nothing is more rational than using the wind, a natural, free, renewable and healthy resource, to improve the thermal comfort of our projects. The awareness of the finiteness of the resources and the demand for the reduction in the energy consumption has removed air-conditioning systems as the protagonist of any project. Architects and engineers are turning to this more passive system to improve thermal comfort. It is evident that there are extreme climates in which there is no escape, or else the use of artificial systems, but in a large part of the terrestrial surface it is possible to provide a pleasant flow of air through the environments by means of passive systems, especially if the actions are considered during the project stage.
Humans can survive for 30 days without eating, 3 days without drinking, yet only 3 minutes without breathing. Of course our need for air is also constant, we rely on it at all times indoors and outdoors although can often be less clean than we would hope. Unpleasant odors make us aware of bad air, but many irritants and unhealthy gases are not easily detectable by smell while still affecting our health. Smells are the most obvious signal, as they are consciously perceived by the brain and nervous system, allowing us to make judgements about our environment.
It is truly odd how we always find ourselves in a bad mood at work and our productivity keeps decreasing as the week passes by. To be fair, we can’t keep blaming our colleagues, clients, or Monday for our rough day; sometimes it’s the chair we are sitting on, the fluorescent lighting above our computer, or the constant “chugging” sound of the printer near the desk.
With the amount of information and technology we currently have, whether from academic research or from the manufacturers of construction products themselves, there is very little room for empiricism and experimentation when we design on the most diverse scales. Even worse is when design specification misconceptions can pose huge costs and headaches. However, long before construction and occupancy of the building, it is possible to clearly understand how the construction will function thermally, its photovoltaic power generation capacity, and even how much power will be required to cool and/or heat it. There are software, tools and applications that allow you to quantify all these design decisions to avoid errors, extra costs, unnecessary waste generation, and ensure the efficiency of all materials applied.
Human economic activities are naturally dependent on the global ecosystem, and possibilities for economic growth may be limited by the lack of raw materials to supply factory and trade stocks. While for some resources there are still untapped stocks, such as certain metals and minerals, there are others, such as fossil fuels and even water, with serious availability issues in many locations.
Few things irritate us more than exposure to excessive noise or inability to hear what we need to hear. Whether it's a nearby construction site, highway traffic, air conditioning, or a neighbor learning saxophone, research shows that noise can contribute to cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, headaches, hormonal changes, sleep disturbance, reduced physical and mental performance, and the reduction of well-being. On the other hand, in an acoustically "comfortable" environment, in addition to listening to what we want, we focus better and feel calmer.