|The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence 2023|
[ID:3285] Sensitivity, Nurturance, Resilience: lessons from two architectural gems in England’s Steel City
We habitually think in dichotomies: good and evil, order and chaos, life and death. However, it can be worth considering how the tension between two seemingly conflicting elements or ideas could potentially catalyze positive change.
To dedicated environmentalists and passionate designers alike, perhaps no two elements present a greater conflict than nature and the built environment. This perceived fissure appears to widen as we confront climate change. Yet the term is often misunderstood. Fluctuations in the Earth’s climate have taken place since the dawn of time, owing to infinitesimal variations in its orbit. It is the current trend of rising global temperatures that are especially alarming, due to its strong correlation to human activity since the mid-20th century and its unprecedented rate of progression. As atmospheric carbon dioxide increases and sea levels rise, weather disasters are exacerbated and natural resources, drained. This creates ripple effects on national security, human health, food supplies, natural ecosystems, and global economies. And time is of the essence; in October 2018, the United Nations proclaimed a grave warning of the ever-dwindling window in which humanity can, if at all, avert the most grievous effects of a warming world.
Regrettably, we sometimes regard the built environment as being at odds with nature. We hear of green belts being bulldozed for developments. We lambast the indulgent boondoggles that ‘starchitects’ conjure from their ivory towers. And we know that buildings are responsible for a hefty 40% of the world’s energy consumption and about a third of greenhouse gas emissions. Vice versa, harsh weather conditions chip away at buildings and climate catastrophes annihilate them. As we are ourselves a part of nature, climate change necessarily threatens our very existence.
As such, architects play a highly complex role in sustainability. To break this cycle of depletion, pollution, and destruction, it is crucial we establish and sustain a symbiotic relationship with nature. The fields of biomimetic and bioclimatic design explore nature’s potential to inspire pleasant and sustainable manmade environments, and as we tap into renewable energy sources, we discover that nature can even be boundlessly generous. In return, technological advancements spur the development of carbon positive buildings and urban farming, as well as infrastructure to promote urban wildlife and support fragile species.
Architects today face the additional challenge of finding middle ground with tradition. Born and raised in Sheffield, my neighbourhood butcher laments the “steel and concrete monstrosities” taking over his beloved hometown. Such sentiments are not uncommon, yet they reveal a misinformed perspective that the old and the new are opposing forces. While climate change has only found itself into architectural discourse recently, builders throughout history have already displayed great ingenuity in creating favourable microclimates with limited material and technological resources, by simply working with nature. Hence, it is worth perusing these invaluable ancient techniques to reduce the costs of maintaining climatic comfort in the current context.
Sheffield is a city I grew to love not only for its generous green spaces, but also its community's environmentalism. Dubbed England’s Steel City, it has certainly come a long way since its days of metallurgical pollution. It boasts a temperate climate and an undulating topography, which causes tremendous changes in microclimate and the formation of cold-air lakes in concave terrains. Rising to the challenge of these conditions are two remarkable buildings which, while contrasting in age and function, both demonstrate sophisticated climatic adaptation and are united by the spirit of sustainability which inspires this vibrant city.
Nestled away in the quiet outskirts is Abbeydale Hamlet, a former steel-working site. Stepping into the hamlet is a journey back in time. Gone are the comforts of televisions and radiators, and visions of glass facades and concrete edifices; one is embraced by an assemblage of stone masonry cottages and generous peripheral greenery. With the city bustle a distant affair, the site is restful and quiet. But this is a far cry from its heyday in the 1850s, when furnaces fumed, forges pounded, and workers were packed in like sardines. With such intense activity came the need for climatic comfort, as bespoken by accounts of workers in times past, but without modern mechanical technologies, the site instead employs an instinctive system of passive and site strategies.
Customarily, building amidst a natural landscape has its roots deeper than mere aesthetic pleasure. Trees provide shade, reduce air-borne noises, and filter the air. In winter, evergreen windbreaks minimize heat loss from buildings and protect against drifting snow, while in summer, leaves and grassy surfaces absorb radiation, and provide a cooling effect via evaporation.
The hamlet’s charming cottages are arranged to form a cross-ventilated courtyard, thereby regulating ambient temperature and providing fresh air. The facade exposed to the prevailing westerly winds is positioned at an angle to reduce the wind impact, which would otherwise be experienced in its entirety should the buildings be perpendicular to it. To cope with the chilly winds, there are no windows on the west facade, and almost all cottages have their long axes running east-west for maximum solar benefit.
With the courtyard entrance facing north, the wide south-facing windows are completely unobstructed by the other cottages, allowing the sun to warm and illuminate the workshops. Cottages are also conjoined to minimize the surface exposed to heat loss, and all have windows across from each other for cross-ventilation and bilateral lighting.
The British cliché of inclement weather translates itself into the hamlet’s steep pitches and roof overhangs. Clad in durable stone, insulated by straw, and lined with drainage pipes, the slightly disproportionate roofs also lend the hamlet a somewhat quirky character. Most gables face away from the prevailing wind, and have porches and unheated rooms as a transition to heated ones, each of which is gathered around a hearth. From here, natural ventilation occurs via stack effects, whereby warm air from the hearth rises through the chimney, while cool air is drawn in from below.
Another notable feature is an undercroft between the hand forges and blacking shop. Besides serving as a store, it also aids ventilation to neighbouring cottages and acts as a shaded foyer to reduce heat loss. A close inspection of the peculiar pillars reveal that they are in fact grindstones which have been worn down into discs and stacked atop one another. This detail bears testament to the resourcefulness of the builders; the Yorkstone with which the hamlet’s walls were built was sourced from local quarries, and with its high thermal capacity, absorbs heat during the day and radiates it at night.
Inside each cottage one can marvel at its robust timber frame construction, which is exposed internally. From a climatic perspective, timber frames offer a high degree of structural integrity and thermal insulation to endure heavy snows and powerful winds. And while it is unlikely that ‘going green’ was consciously a part of the agenda back then, the use of timber is in fact highly sustainable, owing to its renewability and carbon sequestration properties.
In an age without electricity, builders cleverly took advantage of the fast-flowing waters of the adjacent River Sheaf, which was dammed to create a power source which turned the grinding wheels, drove the drills, and powered the bellows. Yet water can be both a resource and a climate controlling element. Air blown in from the westerly winds passes the water surface and is cooled and purified of dust particles. With a higher specific heat capacity than land, water is warmer in winter and cooler in summer than the terrain. Accordingly, the river moderates extreme temperature fluctuations in the hamlet.
My visit ended on a bittersweet note as a long-term volunteer explained the threats climate change pose to heritage buildings. The hamlet is vulnerable to flooding due to its proximity to the same river that gave it life. Global warming is also likely to encourage both fungal and plant growth and insect infestation, and structural problems from shrink-swell cycles. In dry conditions, soil shrinkage, particularly of the clay-rich variety that the hamlet sits upon, can cause deformation and even collapse. Warmer conditions may also increase fire risk in upland landscapes. Thankfully, both the exterior stone cladding and interior timber frame are inherently flood- and fire-resistant, and with modern building technologies underpinning restoration works on the site, the hamlet is set to stay and inspire generations to come.
But younger generations are perhaps more familiar with a striking redevelopment near the urban centre. After an eco-revamp in 2010, Sheffield City College is now a stunning addition to the city’s skyline. And with a tram stop just a stone’s throw away and a cycling route extending into its premises, its seamless integration with public transport networks encourages environmentally friendly modes of transport.
Being within earshot of the city centre, however, brings about its own challenges. High building density results in much less greenery in cities compared to the countryside. Reduced vegetation elevates urban temperatures in a phenomenon known as the urban heat island effect. This is intensified by heat generated in cities from transportation, air conditioning, and various domestic activities and industrial processes.
Notwithstanding, high density cities are ideal candidates for district heating, where local heat sources from industries or cogeneration power stations are available. As a case in point, Sheffield City College runs on the Sheffield District Energy Network, which operates an incinerator to reduce landfill waste. Building envelopes of high-rise constructions like the college have a lower overall surface area for the same floor area, and thus reduce heat loss and heating demand in winter, but this may be offset by the energy requirements to power elevators. Such multistorey buildings also hamper urban solar energy utilization due to mutual shading, increasing the need for electrical lighting and air-conditioning.
With these challenges and opportunities in mind, the project team firmly placed sustainability at the heart of the project.
The building’s west façade faces the heart of the city and is a bold statement in itself; curved aluminium strips span the entire façade vertically, with the green cladding and steel trusses forming an energetic expression of the coexistence of nature and architecture. But form and colour is more than an aesthetic and narrative gesture. While a lighter external colour lowers solar heat gain, they cause glare and thermal stress for pedestrians, yet dark-coloured walls cause excessive solar gain. The subtle palette was a compromise, with the bold aluminium strips forming vertical shades. Limited glazing was also applied to the facades, with solar shades on the west and south facades to reduce solar gain, offering copious natural light without the discomfort of glare and requirement for an extensive cooling system. Indeed, designing buildings in an age of climate change is a fine balancing act.
A grand seven-storey glazed atrium forms the centrepiece of the building and creates an airy, well-lit circulation zone. End walls are fully glazed using a system with minimal structure, saving on materials and allowing unfettered views into the building’s buzzing interiors.
The building’s refreshing character also owes itself to several state-of-the-art sustainable technologies. Photovoltaic cells on the south facing facade and three roof-mounted wind turbines generate clean energy and serve to reduce the building’s baseload. High efficacy light fittings and lamps have also been installed along with daylight dimming and motion sensing. But it’s not all machines and mechanics. All naturally ventilated rooms are complete with passive ventilators which can be controlled by users, and are set to fully open during warmer months for night cooling, with the exposed concrete slab providing thermal storage.
Echoing the lush parks that border the site are two sedum roofs, with most of the site landscaped beautifully into a ‘parkland’ style area. These features encourage biodiversity, offer thermoregulatory effects, and absorb pollution and rainfall, reducing flood risk. Waterproofing under the green roof system is also protected from ultraviolet light and the extremes of temperature and weather to prolong its lifespan.
The college even goes the extra mile in tackling future resource scarcity. To reduce the use of potable water, the college integrates a rainwater harvesting system which includes a ‘balancing pond’ to store rainwater for reuse. Campus-wide, waste reprocessing and composting facilities recycle organic waste from the restaurants and catering school. Several existing constructions from the old building were also prudently retained, and building materials were either reclaimed or obtained from certified sustainable sources.
Through experiencing and understanding these buildings, I uncovered three principles of good design: Sensitivity, Nurturance, and Endurance.
In the fight against climate change, it is pertinent that designers are sensitive not only the environmental context within which their work operates, but also the social, technological, and economic ones. This is due to the multifarious nature of climate change and how deeply intertwined these factors are.
Ergo, good designs work with the accompanying challenges and opportunities in a graceful pas de deux. The hamlet’s usage of hydropower and the college’s utilization of wind energy show how such mindfulness pays off. By learning from both examples and deploying local materials, we can also combat the rising global reliance on imported materials, which creates a momentous carbon footprint from freight transport. Where local materials are unsuitable, we can even tap into local culture and technological innovations for inspiration; the passive strategies of vernacular architecture, combined with emerging green construction technologies and bio-based materials, can significantly reduce our reliance on costly and unsustainable fossil fuel-based energy sources. In line with keeping energy use to the bare essentials, designers too need to be perceptive about the human experience of architecture, and design for end-user control.
Good buildings, I came to realize, are like good teachers. They are generously nurturing, both sensorially and pedagogically. As silent educators that speak volumes, they should inspire a sustained effort towards sustainability. City College’s eye-catching turbines and exposed ductwork illustrates energy use, raising awareness of building-related energy consumption. Coupled with the appropriate facilities and features, the college encourages more responsible occupant behaviours. Green spaces in and around both buildings also promote a sense of wellbeing while evoking nature's beauty and fragility, thereby urging users and visitors to cherish its presence.
Finally, resilience is vital in good design. Architectural solutions to climate change must withstand the test of time as their effects often take decades to realize. In this regard, buildings need to cope with more drastic temperature changes and harsher weather, as well as the impending threat of resource scarcity. But truly resilient buildings also address social perceptions of obsolescence. As lifestyles evolve, buildings must adapt to remain fit for function, in order to put a stop to our highly unsustainable demolish-and-rebuild culture. This calls for more flexible designs which can be easily reconfigured or retrofitted, as well as a receptiveness towards technologies which can revitalize older buildings and keep precious architectural legacies alive.
As we reimagine buildings fit for the future, tensions are bound to arise, but as both buildings exemplify, tensions need not deter passion and innovation. After all, the best solutions are always synergetic and dynamic, and by maintaining a spirit of perseverance and creativity, we can certainly realize a more sustainable world.
1. Dahl, T. (2010) Climate and Architecture, 1st edn. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
2. Givoni, B. (1998) Climate Considerations in Building and Urban Design. New York: International Thomson Publishing.
3. Heschong. L. (1979) Thermal Delight in Architecture. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
4. Olgyay, V. (1963) Design with Climate: Bioclimatic Approach to Architectural Regionalism. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Articles and lectures
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5. Eric Baldwin, How Architects Can Adapt for Our Climate Crisis (2018) < https://architizer.com/blog/practice/details/building-for-change/> [accessed 28 October 2018].
6. Jessica Green, We’re covered in germs. Let’s design for that. (2013) [video] Available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/jessica_green_good_germs_make_healthy_buildings?referrer=playlist-sustainability_by_design#t-84192 [accessed 28 October 2018].
7. Oscar Holland, What traditional buildings can teach us about sustainability (2017) http://edition.cnn.com/style/article/vernacular-architecture-sustainability/index.html [accessed 28 October 2018].
8. Joshua Mcwhirter, Stop Seeing Climate Change as an “Opportunity” for Architecture (2018)
1. Environment Agency UK (https://flood-warning-information.service.gov.uk/long-term-flood-risk/map)
2. Historic England (https://historicengland.org.uk/)
3. Rockefeller Foundation: 100 Resilient Cities
4. Sheffield Climate Alliance (https://www.sheffieldclimatealliance.net/)
5. Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust (http://www.simt.co.uk/abbeydale-industrial-hamlet)
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