Reducing Energy use through “Thermal Delight”

“Thermal qualities – warm, cool, humid, airy, radiant, cozy – are an important part of our experience of a space; they not only influence what we choose to do there but also how we feel about the space…environmental control systems tend to be treated rather like the Cinderella of architecture; given only the plainest clothes to wear, they are relegate to a backroom to do the drudgery that maintains the elegant life-style of the other sisters: light, form, structure, and so forth.”

Quote by Lisa Heschong in Thermal Delight in Architecture

 

Thermal delight is being aware of and taking pleasure in the various thermal qualities within a building or environment, be it over the course of a day or the year. Embracing the idea of thermal delight is an important way to make our built environment more sustainable and use less energy. As the above quote alludes, since the mid-century only now just changing, we built buildings without regard to their location’s climate. The same building could be in Seattle as in Arizona. We overcame our design deficiencies by installing larger and more energy intensive HVAC systems, which could keep the building a “comfortable” 72 degrees year-round. I see two different ways to promote the idea of thermal delight in the built environment with the goal of lowering energy usage of environmental control systems (includes HVAC as well as non-mechanical controls such as louvers and operable windows).

The first approach is based on education, design and policy. So few of our buildings now are thermally delightful that few people actually know of or are aware of experiencing thermal delight in a building. One might be aware of it during a sunny day at the beach, but not while inside. Since coming to architecture grad school and learning about the idea of thermal delight, I have begun to realize previous points in my life when I experienced thermal delight in a building and now am more aware of how the thermal qualities of various buildings. First, growing up in California, one of my favorite parts of each summer day was when the outside temperature dropped below my house’s inside temperature (usually kept at 82°). Once this happened, we opened all of the doors and windows and turned on a large attic fan, which sucked the cool night air throughout the warm house. Now, I work at Weber Thompson, in a great building they design for themselves in South Lake Union. Completed in 2009, this small office building was built without air conditions and instead relies on operable windows, vents and an inner courtyard to cool the building. This works remarkably well. I’ve worked in this building for two summers and there have only been a few hours during a few days each year where the building gets uncomfortably warm. But I am happy to have these few days of slight discomfort for the feeling of sitting at my desk on warm spring and summer days and feeling a breeze cross my face. Opening windows to let the cool morning air into the office is one of the best ways to start a workday that I know.

Policies and building codes could be revised to encourage thermally sensitive building design. For example building codes could require all occupiable spaces have access to some minimum area of operable window and all workspaces could be required to provide users with some means to adjust their personal environmental temperature. LEED could also adopt requirements that buildings be designed appropriately for their local climate. As more thermally delightful buildings were designed, having thermally delightful space could be just as desirable as having beautifully day lit space.

A second way to encourage energy savings though thermal delight would be to develop a series of new technologies that could be added onto existing environmental control systems and incorporated into new ones. These new technologies should give building users more specific zoned control over the system, allowing users to adjust the temperature to their specific desires. Using artificial intelligence, the controllers could also work to change what the users deem “comfortable.” One way they could do this would be to slowly lower or increase the temperature that the user set (with some minimum/maximum point) and see how long the user takes to readjust the temperature. Over time, people may realize that they can be comfortable in a room heated to 67 °degrees rather than 70 °. The new control system should also have a good interface, it should be aesthetically pleasing, fun to use. It should give the user the same instant gratification and delight one gets from opening or closing a window.

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