Double dilemma? discussions as Fellow

In recent years I was a Fellow of the Technical University of Eindhoven, more precisely working with the Building Physics department, in particular with Prof. Wim Zeiler, Installation Technology. And we had interesting discussions, because we strive for the same thing, while we come from different backgrounds. Those discussions can more or less be summarized in two dilemmas, or at least that’s what they seem to be, at first glance:

Firstly the approach “save what can be saved”, in particular trying to stay below 2 degrees, versus the approach: “accepting that we are not going to make it”, and thus prepare for a mess, while there is still time. That presents a choice between two evils: Sacrifice on the one hand, or danger on the other.

In my book “Broken Cycles” I explore what it takes to stay below two degrees of extra heat, and also stay within sustainable raw material budgets. Which is a quite intense challenge, that requires a lower standard of living than we are used to (at least for us from the industrialized countries). On the other hand, I have to admit that we have already wasted far too much time in tackling this, and that two or three degrees of extra heating is almost inevitable, given also the slowness of governments reacting time, and that we better make use of the remaining time to prepare ourselves for a number of new problems that will undoubtedly arise. Which is probably the most realistic, but it is not easy, emotionally, to let go of reason, ie the attempt to stay below two degrees.

There is a second dilemma that crops up in our discussion:

One has a focus on people, keeping them healthy and safe and somewhat comfortable, versus the focus on system, the resources, and how they limit the possibilities, regardless of what people want or desire. This is again a choice between two evils: you would prefer to offer that person comfort, but that is at the expense of resources, or you manage the availability of resources (and biodiversity, etc.) and reduce the comfort of those people.

The two views are not as far apart as you might think at first. You do want to keep everyone safe, whether that is at a system level (available resources, climate change) or at an individual level (in our case: healthy buildings). In addition, it also depends on how you define and realize comfort. In one view, comfort is not what buildings now provide, which are just stacks of individual measures and technologies. What matters is to define what a minimum of comfort is, and to deliver it integrally, as a building: the building itself is also the climate installation, integral, and what would that look like?

Which is probably very different and a lot more efficient from what we are designing and building today, and could also be closer to what the resource-system can deliver sustainably.

For the moment we have framed this as “climate-positive buildings”, although we have yet to find out exactly what that are. In any case its where comfort and resource optimization come together. Comfort in the broadest sense of the word, by the way. This does not include chilling in the couch by the fireplace, but protecting people against uncomfortable conditions: against hypothermia or overheating, and ensuring healthy indoor air, for example. *

The first and second ‘dilemma’ again come closer together here. Because if we don’t stay below that 2 degree limit, man himself, and his ‘comfort’, will be endangered anyhow. From both sides. My focus is as always on a shortage of resources, or adverse effects for the system as such, such as climate change, or loss of biodiversity, with all consequences for ‘humanity’ as a species, while the other is concentrating on ‘man’, the person himself, and thereby making the actual problems on that side visible. Such as Wim Zeiler’s research into ventilation in daycare centers, which is far below par. Or, as recently in this regard, his lecture for the health council in which a number of trends were mapped out. Because the effects are clear at the system level, but are also becoming visible at the individual level: I was shocked. For example, the number of expected deaths from a heat wave and overheating in homes will more than triple . (UK data).

This overheating presents again a dilemma: are we going to use all the space in the city for local energy generation with solar panels, or are we going to make cities green with trees, to cool the city, trees that in principle stand in the way of solar energy production?

In the mean time the temperature is rising everywhere, in the city, on land, and on the surface water. The risks with regard to legionella also increase, as does the number of infections: that has risen over the past 10 years from about 150 per year to 400 per year. More then doubled.

And recently, after some physical complaints, I myself was tested for dengue fever: the tiger mosquito is already spotted here in the Netherlands! I was ok, by the way, but still, things are changing. Particulate matter levels are already close to limits and often above the WHO limit values, with related disease patterns. Blue-green algae and botulism will also play an increasingly important role in this country as a result of rising temperatures. All these developments are directly or indirectly related to our health. So you have to be careful on that side too, at the individual level, not just on the system/resource side.

It is a quest that will renew the field of building physics, both on the construction and on the installation side. It requires that Architecture and building physics will have to integrate extensively. Physics, in the broad sense, and at the system level, building level as well as on individual level, is becoming increasingly critical. And we have to learn to control that before too big problems arise. More of the same is no longer an option.

As I put it: Functions provided by society have to rely on/ have to follow physics. If you combine that with the well-known “form follows functions”, you get “Form Follows Physics”. As a new challenge, both system level physics, (‘system physics’) dealing with resource security as well as individual level physics , contained in Building physics. In the book of the same name, written as a Fellow for colleagues and students, I explore this development.

In building & construction, we therefore have to prepare for changes that will come anyway, but at the same time try not to let those changes aggravate or accelerate things, by again investing even more energy and materials, and have even more associated negative effects such as material depletion and CO2 emissions. eg climate change….

While at the same time a certain comfort (and at least basic health levels) must be maintained. But if in fact our current use of energy and materials cannot be sustained, then can the traditional concept of comfort within building physics be sustained? Or can the comfort-concept be flexible: comfortable if possible, adapt if necessary? Like withdrawing into 1 warm room and when it freezes, instead of trying to keep the whole house comfortable? As my visit to the island of Eigg , described in the book, taught me: living autark is about adapting and living flexible. And the earth is autark (except for incoming solar energy) , so anything at some scale level has to be autark too, on the basis of solar energy. And again: does it make sense to apply the same standard year round, while everything around us is constantly changing? Light, sun, rain, temperature, humidity, sound? Pretend there is no changing outside world?

We really have to ask ourselves whether we should and still can provide the comfort created with fossil fuels, for every m2 we inhabit. Compare it with food: we have to adapt to the seasons. Just as winter ‘offers limited choice in vegetables’, so does buildings: If there is less (renewable) energy, we also have to minimize the energy demand, for example by reducing the heated m2’s : deal with a ‘limited offer in m2’s’ in winter…

At the same time, the summers are getting warmer, we also have to avoid to cool too much (actively), which in turn would negate the savings from the winter, in terms of energy demand.

What that future built environment will look like, what will be and what will not be, really requires a thorough analysis and reinventing of our built environment. In any case not the dumb introduction of ever more technologies , or as system and building physics, trying to prevent disasters by building designs that completely neglect reality.

As working on a University ourselves, we must of course take the science of our colleagues from the climate and environmental sciences seriously, and make that scientifically leading for the built environment. Not treat it as just another claim or requirement, its should be the basis of all decisions. In any case, continuing on the current path is not useful…. That is burying one’s head in the sand, and results in a far from optimal or acceptable situations: not with regard to comfort and not with regard to resource use; not on system level nor on individual level, not regarding avoiding changes, and not about adapting to changes (and avoiding the need for even greater adjustments). The current road is neither. We must either reinvent life or reinvent our way of life, that is: the built environment.


My Fellowship at the TUE ended on September 1, 2021. In the coming period I will continue as a parttime Guest Professor at Hasselt University, Belgium.


*2226 comes close:

Author: ronald rovers