Building Technologist & Designer, DTA Denis Turco Architect Inc.
Sustainability and passive design strategies played a critical role in my post secondary education. From studying climatic conditions, materials, solar heating and natural ventilation, I learned the importance of extending the design beyond the walls of a building and understanding the impacts on the context. Hours of research, case studies and intense discussions informed and guided many of the design decisions for my projects. In spite of my studies, it took one single moment to fully understand the impact of successful passive design: my first visit to Taj Mahal.
I remember looking around to find the source of the breeze, in the hopes of standing closer to the fan. My guide laughingly told me this was the beauty of the Taj; because even on a still, hot day, the interior of the chamber was kept naturally cool and ventilated. The careful placement and design of the windows created a funnel effect for the outside air. The shape of the openings, with a larger opening on the exterior and a smaller opening on the interior face of the wall, increased the air flow to fully ventilate the interior. The jali, stone latticed screens, in each opening, added to the Venturi effect by creating even smaller openings for airflow. The water channels and fountains integrated in the complex and the Yamuna River north of the Taj further cooled the air as it entered the chamber, and the double wall construction achieved thermal cooling for the interior. The sounds and smells in that chamber didn’t matter as I stood rooted to the spot, absorbing as much of the breeze as I could. A few things had become very clear to me at that point: the importance of basic human comfort; how minimal human comfort actually is; and the full impact of passive strategies.
I find vernacular architecture, architecture indigenous to a specific time or place, quite inspiring. Tipis, igloos and mud houses are only a few examples, and all were (and still are!) successful in that time and place because they efficiently fulfilled the needs of the users with the most economical use of local materials. And it was this specificity to each physical context that created a symbiotic relationship between man, land and building. Over time, globalization has made it possible to transport any material and technology to any corner of the world, but the relationship between user, building and context has deteriorated.
While explaining one of his projects in India, Mehrotra talked briefly about the interesting ways certain materials weather and develop patinas over time, and one can spend a considerable amount of time studying the effects of time and climate on these materials. He then laughed as he added that, nowadays, the discussion around the table is less about weathering and more about weatherproofing buildings.
While advancement is right, and even essential in its own place, it's also important to remember the fundamentals; like the value of a cool breeze on a hot summer day.