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Passive housing, frugal architecture

Architects are designing houses in a number of useful ways, saving on energy and providing low-cost shelter.

Energy efficiency targets for European buildings soared to new levels last year, yet the demand for indoor comfort remained steady.

Energy regulations in buildings were tightened in May 2010 to reduce the high rate of energy consumption in this sector, which is where around half the energy produced goes, mainly on heating and cooling.

The passive house with built-in low energy consumption, first piloted in Germany, has set what seemed a very ambitious standard. However, it makes increasingly good sense for houses in a hot, humid Mediterranean climate too.

While design choices may be adapted according to local climate conditions, passive housing pre-empts ever stricter targets by reaching beyond them, as can be seen by results from examples around the world.

At the first conference of its type to be held in Malta, the founder of the Passive House Institute showed how design solutions originally applied to keep houses in northern climates warm could be adapted to enhance natural cooling in a warm climate, using examples from Spain and Italy.

Accredited passive house designer and architect Micheel Wassouf specialises in low-energy consumption buildings for hot regions ranging from Syria to Spain.

Spain can be said to have three climates – coastal Mediterranean, continental and Atlantic – yet traditionally its architects are focused on aesthetic questions, rather than involved in energy-efficient planning.

A basic principle of energy efficient design for kitchens, living-rooms and bedrooms, which need good natural ventilation, is to have an opening window or door connected directly to the outside.

For Malta’s climate, choosing the best options for shading, window-glazing and even what colour to paint a building’s exterior requires a thoughtful balance between cooling and heating. Controlling gains and losses over different seasons has to be carefully worked out.

Well planned use of outdoor colours can change the cooling demand by up to five kilowatt hours per square metre, even in well-insulated buildings.

When it comes to decor, the use of ‘cool’ colours on outside walls lowers solar absorption, helping to reduce the sun’s heat load during the summer months.

On the other hand, moveable rather than fixed exterior shading is preferred to avoid additional heating demands in winter.

Care must be taken to ensure permanent shading of east or west-facing windows does not increase the winter cooling load beyond any energy gains to be had from the same shading in summer.

Architect and certified passive house designer Andrea-Nicole Schmidt has been giving workshops and tutoring architecture classes on energy-efficient buildings and passive housing technology at the University since 2009.

A conference on passive housing, organised by the University’s Faculty of the Built Environment, was held last April. And this month, American students are collaborating on a project to prepare the first passive house exhibition in Malta, organised by Ms Schmidt.

Recently, at a separate conference on frugal architecture organised by Architecture Project – AP (Malta) and Abbate e Vigevano architects (Italy), it was stressed that sustainability in architecture need not be something that is tolerated – it can also be desirable. Frugality in architecture is a way of making spaces using minimial means which meet the needs of the community they are intended to serve.

Frugality, sustainability, under-consumption and eco-compatibility are at the base of this new culture which aims to be frugal with the Earth’s resources. It is a culture of ethical and responsible development, pointing research in architecture, design and the arts toward alternative solutions.

In an opening speech, Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment Mario de Marco recognised the need to avoid buildings that have little or no connection with context. He spoke of a new ethic that “refuses to engage in the throwaway practices of our times”.

Architecture Project partner Alberto Miceli Farrugia, co-organiser of the ‘Frugality in Architecture’ conference, augured that a strategy for the creative arts would be developed which included architecture.

Speaking on architects’ role he quoted Samuel Mockbee (1944 – 2001), who held that architects nudge, cajole and inspire a community to challenge the status quo under the subversive leadership of academics and practitioners whose duty it is to remind students of the profession’s responsibilities.

Mockbee’s sense of connection with rural places and a respect for the disadvantaged people who inhabit them led to the setting up of Rural Studio in Alabama, US. Elena Barthel, an architect working with the studio, gave a presentation on how citizens could become their own architects in times of need.

Architect Crizia Abbate, who chairs the Committee for Climate Change, Alternative Energies and Sustainable Design for the Association of American Colleges and University programmes in Italy, has been instrumental in publishing A Guide to Frugal Architecture.

A dream city named Masdar (meaning ‘source’), designed by British architects and being built by the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, is to host the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency. Inspired by traditional Arabian architecture with a zero-carbon, zero-waste brief, it is to rely entirely on solar and other renewable sources of energy.

Automobiles are to be banned in the futuristic city which is to have mass public transit and personal rapid transit systems. A perimeter wall running around the city is to keep out the hot desert winds. This will allow for narrow and shaded streets that help funnel cooler breezes across the city.

Iranian-American architect Nader Khalili’s sustainable solutions to human shelter are well known through the superadobe he had developed using sandbags and barbed wire.

Starting off as a designer of lunar bases and space habitation with NASA in the 1980s, he strongly believed in the use of timeless materials (earth, water, air and fire) and traditional building practices (arches, vaults and domes).

He used these same principles, interpreted into the simplest form of building technology, to create emergency shelters. Having passed strict building tests and codes, they can be converted into permanent homes. Khalili, who died in 2008, believed everyone should be able to build a shelter for their family.

Workshops were held over two days following the conference to develop concepts and proposals for temporary emergency shelters for migrants and refugees based on the concept of frugality.

www.passivehouse.us
www.earthbagbuilding.com

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