Architecture and Energy (Again)

Introduction from: William W. Braham & Dan Willis, Architecture and Energy: Performance and Design (London: Routledge, 2013)


Energy is an abstract concept. Formalized in the nineteenth century for the calculations of thermodynamics, it is a largely metaphorical term in everyday usage, where it can represent everything from personal vitality to national wealth. The term came into wide use with the increased extraction and exploitation of hydro-carbon fuels, loosely with the mining of coal in the nineteenth century and extraction of oil and natural gas in the twentieth. As technological civilization grew and became more energy-intensive (and energy-efficient) through that period, each shift or disruption in fuel production has prompted anxiety about the nature of the dependence, from Jevons writing about coal production in the nineteenth century, to the Limits to Growth report in the 1970s and the most recent Roadmap 2050 fora prosperous, low-carbon Europe.”[i] As Luis Fernandez-Galiano observes, energy accounting quickly becomes “the philosopher’s stone that would make it possible to reconcile technology and nature, economics and ecology.”[ii]

Energy becomes an explicit topic for architectural design in periods of fuel scarcity and/or high-price, for example in the late 1940s, the 1970s, and the later 2000s. But as Reyner Banham (1922-1988) taught us in the 1960s, it has been equally important in periods of energy growth and abundance, when the focus instead was on power generation and labor-saving, which transformed buildings in radical new ways. Banham traced the genesis of the new building types of the 1960s, highlighting design choices such as those between “exposed” or “concealed” power. He used a fable to describe the deep tension between the “structural” elements of architecture—walls, windows, roofs—and the new “power-consuming” technologies that had invaded buildings, illustrating them with the image of a house reduced to its power-driven devices.[iii] In the excitement of that insight, he imagined that the power-driven environmental devices would simply evolve to replace the older, slower elements of architecture, but with the energy price increases of the late 1970s another generation lauded the virtues of “passive” design, of environmental control accomplished with the “structural” elements of buildings alone.[iv]

Despite the appealing clarity of Banham’s opposition between structure and power, between the work of architects and engineers, the distinction has become blurred and nearly invisible in the design strategies that have emerged in the half-century since his characterization. From active glass walls and responsive facades to ceiling plenums, radiant floors, and the embedding of feedback-and-response technologies in nearly every aspect of buildings, the structural and power-consuming elements have been wholly hybridized. The high-powered buildings of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century differ visibly from previous generations of buildings in their size, shape, and capacities, with green roofs, solar panels, and wind turbines serving as the status symbols of high-performance construction. Just as the well-tailored suit or high-performance car may signify an individual of particular wealth or power, visible energy technologies alert the casual viewer to performance efficiencies that otherwise can’t be seen, distinguishing those buildings from conventional forms of construction.

As Richard Stein and others hastened to explain in the late 1970s, buildings use energy for much more than heating, cooling, and lighting.[v] The widespread use of glass, aluminum, and plastic, for example, require tremendous expenditures of resources for their acquisition, manufacture, transport, and maintenance, and like the conspicuous display of ornamentation in previous periods, those materials themselves have become emblems of that expenditure. In hierarchical societies whose positions and privileges are based on the control of wealth, architecture can be understood as a symbol of physical and economic power. This profoundly complicates the question of energy efficiency, which is itself a technique for increasing power, and illustrates the deeper challenges of inquiring about architecture and energy.

As readers will see, complication became something of an unintended theme throughout this book. Many of our authors caution against oversimplifying the problematic relationship between architecture and energy. A few even question whether efficiency improvements are the best path to a sustainable society that consumes less energy. We also cast doubt upon a too-literal energy theory of value, of mistaking the importance of energy and the appeal of universal calculation with any kind of simple determinism. If the principles of thermodynamics and systems ecology can teach us anything, it is that design only projects likely or probable futures.

Style. In discussions among the contributors, it became evident that the term “style” itself was often an impediment. The act of “reading” and interpreting the signs of architectural energy performance is a complex cultural process. Such indicators can be used accidentally, incorrectly, or even deceptively as “greenwash,” and because buildings last longer than the cycles of cultural fashion or technological change, they may simply cease to be meaningful over time. As a rule, contemporary architects and theorists distrust the use of explicit stylistic or symbolic arguments for all those reasons (as well as in reaction to the excesses of post-modernism), but it is precisely through descriptions of style that most people typically understand and discuss architecture.

The matter of style has been debated since the beginning of the modern era, linked initially to historical accounts of architecture and then to theories of socio-cultural change and evolution. Like styles in clothing and cuisine, what had previously been associated with specific peoples or places became a matter of choice, and then of purposeful variety, and eventually of research and “branding.” Accounts of the adoption or diffusion of new products and technologies have grown from an academic concern to the subject of marketing campaigns, while architects and architectural theorists have sought more durable arguments for design decisions, arguments based on the evolving culture of design or the role of buildings in everyday life.

Despite the limitations of the term style, the contributors all agreed that energy usage affects the design of buildings, though they differed on the scale of the influence, the specifics of the outcomes, and its value as a tool for regulating either design or energy consumption. Those different positions are explored in the twelve essays that make up this book, which fall into three different sections, describing three scales of approach to the topic.

Energy Systems

The first scale of approach situates the topic within larger historical or theoretical systems, drawing on anthropology, ecology, systems theory, and the philosophy of technology to understand how energy operates in design more generally. Architects often complain that the important decisions are made before they get involved in projects, which can be even truer where energy is concerned. Building energy use is influenced by many different elements, from siting and building size to the materials and methods of construction, all of which can be dictated by economic and operational factors well before designers are ever considered. The amount of energy (meaning wealth) available to households, companies, or institutions is probably the biggest constraint on the size, location, and ambitions of a building project, and that is as much a function of global economic markets (and fuel production) as individual ambitions and successes. In this way, assumptions about the risk of future fuel scarcity and increased environmental costs become an immediate design decision and most of the chapters in this section address the consequences of higher energy costs. Thackara considers the darkest outcome, a reduction in available energy to 5% of current norms, while Fernández-Galiano explores the limitations of technocratic predictions and makes the case for the resilience of the compact city in an uncertain future.

Building energy consumption is also strongly affected by the people for whom buildings are designed and who occupy them after they are built. The use of normalized energy-efficiency standards (per unit area of building) can conceal the dramatically different amounts of energy used for different kinds of activities and by groups with different amounts of social and economic power. Thomas Abel’s anthropological perspective makes the point that energy use isn’t just influenced by social structures, but that the specialization of labor and the resulting social hierarchies are themselves a way of increasing production and available power. This suggests a more instrumental role for architectural styles, as elements that can indicate and reinforce social distinctions, but as the chapters in the following sections demonstrate, the visual results called style operate a many levels.

A number of the essays in this section explicitly discuss or draw on the work of Howard T. Odum (1924-2002), the pioneering ecologist who used the careful tracking of energy exchanges to understand the organization of complex ecosystems. His best known book, Environment, Power and Society, extended those techniques to human society, and contributed new concepts to the general discussion of energy in the 1970s. The foundation of his approach rests on the work of the early twentieth century biophysicist, Alfred J. Lotka (1880-1949), who argued that Darwinian selection was a “physical principle” of thermodynamics.[vi] Odum extended that approach to all open, self-organizing systems and used it to develop a number of the basic propositions of systems ecology, which have been adapted and extended by the contributors to understand the encounter of architecture with resource limits.

Throughout his career, Odum relied on the diagramming of energy exchanges to explain the logic and structure of complex ecosystems, and this graphic orientation may be one of the appeals his work offers to designers.[vii] His diagrams outline the specific boundaries of analysis and visually explain the interconnections of systems to their original environmental sources. To quantify his analyses, he refined and the formalized the concept of embodied energy—coining the term “emergy”—to account for all the work and exchanges depicted in the diagrams. While Fernández-Galiano shows the limitations of energy accounting when it is translated into statements of value, Odum’s emergy diagrams make visible the complex inter-dependencies of successful ecosystems, which may be their best purpose.

Building Performance

The second scale of approach addresses the measures of building energy performance itself. Efficiency and performance can be determined in different ways, focusing on annual operating energies of the building, on the energy and resources embodied in the materials of construction, or on the contribution of buildings to larger scales of production. Willis makes the link between the very human reaction to spend accumulated savings and the emergence of urban systems supported by those expenditures. Trubiano examines the production of buildings themselves and examines the work of an early advocate of industrialized or pre-fabricated construction as a method for achieving efficiencies.

Different kinds of performance will have different effects, though many of the technologies of energy-efficiency have virtually no stylistic outcome—more efficient furnaces or air handlers, for example—because they are specifically designed to provide the same outcome or preserve the same environmental services. It is largely these kinds of efficiency improvements that prompted the question about style in the first place. It can be harder to make a case for investments whose results are virtually invisible, and this is perhaps one of the reasons that more visually distinctive technologies like photovoltaics and windmills are often selected or featured. There can be a real tension between engineering evidence and what we might call the “symbolic” display of performance. This can lead to mistrust of all performance claims because of symbolic, inaccurate, or even deceptive use of such technologies, or it can prompt design teams to make less visible technologies more distinctive, bringing ducts or condensate-recovery tanks out into the open. It is one of the corollary principles of fashion that the exaggerated display of trivial features is the basis of fads, not of more enduring styles.

Conversely, Loftness and Yannas explore the visual consequences of bioclimatic or passive design approaches, which maximize the environmental effects of the “structural” components of buildings and minimize or eliminate “power-consuming” components. These approaches rely on strategies such as building orientation, daylighting, window shading, and natural ventilation, and so can have powerfully recognizable visual results. In general, bioclimatic approaches push buildings to become smaller, thinner and more like the buildings that preceded the increases of capacity through the twentieth century. Connecting habitable spaces directly with the exterior environment also produces buildings that people prefer, making them easier to explain and advocate

Architectural Aspects

The third scale of approach looks more directly at architecture itself, at particular works and significant writings that illuminate the relationship between style and performance. The essay by Moe offers the more nuanced term of appearance, bringing together the two senses of the question this book seeks to explore, how does energy affect the coming into existence of buildings (to appear) and how is it visible in the final result (appearance). In quite different ways, these contributions make evident the complex expression of energy use in buildings, and dispel the aspiration for environmental functionalism, the hope that objective energy calculations can simply determine architectural design.

It is the enduring, historical nature of the interaction between performance and style that Hawkes examines over the course of four centuries, from Smythson to the Smithsons. And while he traces the deeper continuities between buildings and climate, he also highlights the difficulty of situating mechanical services within that architectural account. Kahn’s formal embodiment of the opposition between “served” and “servant” spaces in the Richard’s Medical Labs galvanized a generation of designers, but as Hawkes notes, in all of Kahn’s subsequent buildings “he chose to suppress rather than express their mechanical systems.” That ambivalence between buildings and mechanical equipment, between architecture and engineering, continues to characterize the discussion of energy and architecture.

Ultimately, that is the purpose of this collection, to demonstrate that the connections between style, performance, and design are not readily resolved by claims about energy-efficiency or environmental factors. It is not a simple matter of representation, of finding the right “look” for an optimal design. New methods of analysis and new techniques of construction will certainly change the appearance of buildings, but designers still have to situate those changes within social, cultural, and political contexts. As Barber argues, “the design fields have become an important discursive location for debating, understanding, and thinking about environmental complications, and about energy in particular.”

After Style

A provisional conclusion to the collection only became evident as the chapters were assembled and as the contributors responded to requests to address the organizing question about style. As the limitations of style for understanding environmental performance were revealed, it became apparent that other kinds of concepts frequently provided more powerful “discursive locations” to discuss energy in architecture and were commonly being used instead of stylistic descriptions. Among the most common are claims about climate and region, which subsume narrow concerns about energy within broader social, cultural, and economic arguments.

From Vitruvius to the Olgyays to Eneropa, it is frequently argued that buildings (and energy systems) should be adapted to the climate of their location and this underlies some of the most substantial criticisms of the high-powered buildings of that late-twentieth century, that they ignore their climate by using cheap energy.[viii] The concept of an architecture specific to its geographic region combines the argument about the importance of local climate with advocacy for the use of locally available materials, methods of construction, and cultural traditions.[ix] Both ideas combine claims about energy and resource efficiency with specific local forms, materials, or patterns of settlement. The appeal to climatic or regional identity accomplishes much of what was asked of an energy-efficient style, while the notion of regional self-sufficiency draws on powerful moral and political sentiments.

Most of the essays in this book address the fitting of buildings to their climate, while others argue that the city or region is the proper scale at which to address energy or resource efficiency. It is fitting that the EEB Hub was itself formed as a regional entity, and the immediate conclusion of this collection will be a project to consider (again) the influence of climate and region on energy and architecture.

[i] W. S. Jevons, The Coal Question, 2nd ed, London: Macmillan, 1866. D. L. Meadows et al, The Limits to Growth: a report for the Club of Rome’s project on the predicament of mankind, Universe Books, New York, 1972. ROADMAP 2050: A practical guide to a prosperous, low-carbon Europe. Accessed on August 27, 2012:

[ii] See essay by L. Fernández-Galiano in this volume.

[iii] R. P. Banham, The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1969.

[iv] R. P. Banham, “A Home is Not a House,” Art in America, 2, April, 1965, 70-79. For an explanation of the passive approach: E. Mazria, The Passive Solar Energy Book, Emmaus: Rodale Press, 1980.

[v] R. G. Stein, Architecture and Energy, New York: Anchor Press / Doubleday, 1977, pp. 91-107.

[vi] A. J. Lotka, “Natural Selection as a Physical Principle.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 8, Jun. 15, 1922, 151-154.

[vii] M. T. Brown, “A picture is worth a thousand words: energy systems language and simulation,” Ecological Modelling, 178, 2004, 83–100.

[viii] “Now we shall proceed aright herein if first we observe in what regions or latitudes of the world our work is placed. For the style of building ought manifestly to be different in Egypt and Spain, in Pontus and Rome.” Vitruvius, On Architecture [De Architectura], Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1931, p. .

[ix] V. Canizaro, Ed., Architectural Regionalism: Collected Writings on Place, Identity, Modernity, and Tradition, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007.