Hi-tech buildings draw in fresh air

July 19, 1996

If you think the alternative to air- conditioned office blocks is a swelteringly airless work environment then think again.

Interest in naturally ventilated buildings is at an all-time high thanks to a now widespread recognition that air conditioning carries an unacceptably high environmental price.

Not only does air conditioning consume vast amounts of energy (even in the UK most offices need cooling rather than heating for 300 days a year) but concerns about ozone depleting CFC-based refrigerants used in such systems have reduced much of the former enthusiasm amongst architects and office dwellers alike.

The possibility that sick-building syndrome may also be a function of air conditioning could be the final nail in the coffin even though a firm link has yet to be established.

Instead a growing number of architects and construction engineers are now looking for more natural ways of cooling although the commercial air conditioning lobby is still very powerful, according to specialists in the technology of keeping cool at De Montfort University.

The university's Institute of Energy and Sustainable Development is using its expertise in building simulation to help speed up the process of designing naturally ventilated buildings which are still, on the whole, in their infancy.

"A general agreement is beginning to emerge that increased control by building occupants over their environment provides a relationship between the indoor and outdoor environment and is beneficial to the well-being of building occupants," said Herbert Eppel of the Institute.

Since the design of naturally ventilated buildings presents architects with more problems than simply bolting on air conditioning, building simulation can play an important role and funding for various research projects has been obtained from the EC and the Building Research establishment.

The effort is worth it, according to Kevin Lomas of the Institute, who believes firmly that people prefer non air-conditioned buildings. "Secured windows and a constant temperature which you can do nothing about are not everyone's ideal," he says. "But if you can open your own windows you will feel more responsible for your own environment."

People also appear to have different expectations of naturally ventilated buildings, according to Mr Lomas who has found they will tolerate a larger range of temperatures. Techniques vary but in large buildings mechanical ventilators can draw in night air or air from the "quiet" side of a building through holes in the floor. That is not as simple as it sounds, as computer simulators are required to predict air movement and temperature for such an approach to be effective.

"The key is to get the outer shell of the building to do the work," Mr Lomas said. "This involves designing in the technology at the very earliest stage of the design process."

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