Form Follows Physics. On Architecture 2

For my final thesis during my study, I had to design a small theater. And since I combined studies in architecture and building physics, the question was how to combine these two. Nobody knew in the University. (And today, that is mostly still the case.) But I had to please two professors, it should work both ways. Anyway, after some puzzling and trial and error I came to a strategy I called Design by Deduction. The architectural form came from physical optimizations: Internally thats well known: the interior form of a theater has to deal with acoustics, with light. With sight lines, with ventilation, which all together largely determined the shape of the main hall. And of course human physics, the physiology. But since temperature inside is also determined by for instance wall surface temperature, the detailing of outer walls became important: Their materialization would determine radiation temperature: To pre-heat the main hall for the evening, the afternoon heat from solar radiated outside walls would have to arrive 5-6 hours later to warm up the inner wall. ( heat transfer works two ways… think of cold churches as well.) And the outer form was ‘deduced’ from among other things by wind-tunnel testing.
The result was far from optimal of course , but enough to pass, and provided a chance to dive in all these issues. Solar PV panels were not yet mainstream, so weren’t included at the time ( it would take some more years before the first house in NL maybe even in Europe, would become 0-energy by PV ( and even autark at the time, Woubrugge 1993 [1]) But as passive an active solar energy became mainstream, it became also more obvious that the form should be based on Solar angles as well. You need enough Solar radiation oriented surface to gain enough energy for your building, or the other way around, to reduce the amount of panels needed. And as we realized that not only energy is a big issue, but also materials (depletion) and embodied energy, the reduction of material has become an issue as well. Which affects the form. As well as for instance high rises shading neighboring buildings, stealing their energy potential, is an issue. It became more clear that ‘design by deduction’ should be rephrased as ‘Form follows physics’!
We can’t design anymore, independent from the environment, from resource investments and impacts. Everything should be optimized, to get grips with our resource consumption, and more specific to combat climate change by CO2 emissions. The world is constantly loosing exergy, creating entropy ( more chaos/dilution  in molecules) , and we should not speed up that process by unlimited energy and mass destruction. Which implies following physical optimization laws, just like nature does, automatically.
Its needless to say that this is hardly practiced. Already in the nineties we plead for a mandatory orientation of buildings’ roof slopes towards the south, even supported by parliament members of all main parties. But it never made it into building regulations.

Even today , with huge knowledge on resource situations and climate change effects, its denied that what we are doing , is depending on what the surroundings can provide, can handle, to avoid the environment handling us. It seams we want to ‘challenge’ nature, to beat it.  Following physical laws is not what people want, its not fun and not comfortable. Political decisions are made on emotions, rather then on ratio, solid reasoning and physical optimizations. It is even sometimes blocked , giving in on lobbying, and its regarded annoying when experts call for common sense. And if unavoidable to act, as upon climate change now, politics and society run forward to promote new technologies, (like electrical cars and windturbines), in stead of adapting and reducing. Yes, the windturbines follow physical laws, but the built environment which they have to supply doesn’t. Built environments and buildings are still treated as free expressions, and you are taunted if you discuss architectural freedom. Its a taboo. Ridiculous: the sector responsible for 40% ( at least) of all energy and material use, as will as impact and climate change, still can do as they like. Huh?

A few months ago I wrote about three dimensional planning. [2] Since the sun is our main orientation point for the future, we will have to live 100% from the sun in the near future , for our food, materials and energy , and as such building regulations should include the solar orientation, and its angles. And therefor deal with buildings shading each other, and trees reducing PV panel output. It started a lively discussion: trees that should be cut or replaced for PV panels, it was unheard of. And just a few weeks ago there was a hilarious discussion on twitter on chimneys: Obsolete, so remove them. ‘ Ho, ho’ , the tweets came in, ’they are essential part of the archetype of a house’ . ‘Its about taste’  and such things. Of course not. The time we could let the taste and preferences of people prefer is over. Its physics…, stupid!

It even goes beyond Form follows physics, I learned . Since in that case form would still be a expected result. But form is not always a necessity. The need for form is itself also sometimes a result of emotion and wishful thinking. ( or financial profit) . In the end its about providing functions to society : eating, drinking, shelter, transport, which can be provided in many different ways. It is in fact : Function follows physics, and therefor the question is how do we house people on earth, in an effective way, within carrying capacity of the resources on earth. In other words, within physical regeneration capacity of the system , which is fully relying on a balance between use/ consumption, and added power based on solar radiation. ( exergy countering entropy) .

Which makes logic: Its indeed like Form follows function, but also: Function Follows Physics resulting in : form follows physics .

It became more clear when I had a contract to design housing for a semi-arid climate, and made a optimization study for resources in the area. ( based on land availability) . The land is people’s most important possession in these areas. At the same time its usually hot, so providing cool shelter was a requirement as well, of course with the least as possible fossil fuel input. The solution that popped up, from a land optimization perspective, turned out one that older cultures already learned by doing: A deepened patio-house, also known as troglodyte. Its a excavated patio in the middle, with living rooms carved out of the side walls. The building footprint is just the size of the patio, the rest remains as available arable land, and functions as ‘roofs’ at the same time . Resulting in a cool living environment, with minimal land use, leaving optimal resource generation capacity on top. You could even cover the patio at some height with PV panels, creating some extra resource income, and even a cooler patio. The patio is the contact between in and outside, and whether this is above ground as ‘normally’, or deeper positioned, does not make any difference. The view remains the same, in both situations you see the sky. Its a matter of perception. And so resulting in  a optimal “form follows physics” approach, with in this case even producing a ‘negative form’: There is no outer form to design, only (physical) space organization. And besides, it has another advantage: its does not cost any material, it even ‘produces material’ , the excavated soil. Of course its an extreme example only suitable for certain areas, but nevertheless it illustrates the point. ( There is however a similar approach, to be found in Switzerland: A modern ‘cave villa’ tucked in the mountain wall.[3] )

It took a while before all this unfolded, but since thens it became more and more clear that we are completely depending on physical processes, What ever we think. We can neglect that fact a while, but only by eating in on our resource capital. We will have to return to the basis , what is most effective, and get rid of all frills. Otherwise we will have no chance at all to maintain a certain level of living standard. The physics will overtake and adapt our environment. And architects especially will have to learn to deal with this: Get rid of the relics of old school design, like chimneys, and start taking you business serious. Help humanity survive, by maximizing physical resource productivity.

Its may sound somewhat exaggerated, but look at it this way: for decades we have neglected physical processes, and see what it brought us: diminishing resource stocks, and climate change . What ever we think, the world remains a  physical environment, and not a artistic dream.


[1] Woubrugge 1st 0-energy house:
[2] article
[3] villa Vals in Switzerland: (picture)

Author: ronald rovers