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The Heat of the Moment

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In the homes and offices of the future, will our laptops keep us warm? Michelle Addington, a professor of sustainable architectural design at Yale University, thinks so. Addington has written extensively on lighting, materials, and environmental systems and teaches a cross-disciplinary undergraduate course at Yale called “Environment, Energy, Building.” In an interview in her New Haven home with Lian Chikako Chang, a recent graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Addington exhorts architects to think and design more integratively in the future, so that they go beyond serving single client needs to addressing the challenges of the population at large.

Lian Chang: I just completed a case study where I interviewed architectural consultants and explored their roles in practice today. Do you think that the division of labor — the idea that every improvement has to be an improved specification — is influenced by the way buildings get delivered? That an architect will have consultants and each one will advise on, provide, or fabricate a certain aspect of the building? Perhaps that makes it hard for the façade consultant, for example, to think that anything other than what they provide is important?

Michelle Addington: The whole reason I teach this class at Yale is because it’s open to the entire university, so I have undergrads from economics, physics, engineering, literature. I’m trying to get them away from thinking about things only from the perspective of their own fields. Probably the largest percentage is coming from physics and engineering, students who think, “If I could just get people to make their houses more insulated, I’d make a great contribution.” The whole point of this class is to realize that designing a building is a multi-domain problem. How does one operate in all these different types of domains?

That’s where I think architecture has an advantage over every other profession. We don’t see just a problem and solution; we understand there is context, influence, consequence, cause that might come from different places. We learn this when we’re dealing with the multiple subjects that we integrate as we study architecture, not only from the fields we integrate in a building but also from history, theory, law. You begin to think about a problem that has rippling consequences across multiple domains.

I’ve been looking into cookstoves, one of the biggest environmental problems in the world. Each person who’s involved has worked on solving a piece: financing structure; cleanliness; how they’re distributed. The most efficient and cheapest cookstoves are made from aluminum, [but] aluminum has the highest embodied energy, and much of its production is coming out of the Middle East. So you also end up with geopolitics coming into play.

The wonderful thing about architecture is [the] propensity to ask, Did you check this out? Were you thinking about that? What about cultural desires, how families normally cook? Is there an issue of security? These are the things architects can uniquely think about, and do.

Lian Chang: What do you think about practices like MASS Design Group, which started out designing a hospital for tuberculosis patients in Rwanda and now a lot of its work is consulting for governments in terms of how should they think about infrastructure, problems that we can frame as design problems? Should architects insert themselves into policy conversations?

Michelle Addington: I think they should, and I think they’re making a valuable contribution.

Lian Chang: How can an architect explain to the public this way of thinking and this approach, which is different from the traditional role of being a person who makes a certain type of building or who designs in a certain style?

Michelle Addington: I wrestle with the same thing. When people ask me what I do, I say I teach architecture, and they ask, “Do you teach houses or commercial buildings?” There is that assumption that it’s all typological.

At the December 2010 climate conference in Cancún [Mexico], I put together one of the 200-plus side events that took place. I was startled to learn that only three dealt with buildings, and by the number of people who said, “Why would an architect be here?” Yet I saw slide after slide about the impact of buildings. I was surprised to keep seeing that everyone believed buildings to be low-hanging fruit, that the Number 1 thing we can do to combat climate change is to add more insulation. Number 1! I spent a great deal of time talking to policy leaders, saying that’s the worst possible thing you can be doing for the future.

New building codes in Florida require levels of insulation we required in Maine 10 or 15 years ago. The assumption is that the most important thing is to protect conditioned air, not understanding how buildings produce, release, and dump heat. Incredible amounts of insulation are certainly the best way to protect a homogeneous environment. [But] it’s the worst possible way to think about how one deals with heat loads.

Lian Chang: What vernacular features of a typical New England house might have dealt with heat load problems [years ago]?

Michelle Addington: The concept of comfort as we know it is very 20th century. Living as someone did in the 19th century is not going to fit any kind of norm that even I, as someone who’s doing my best to figure out how to get around those things, would accept.

Lian Chang: It would be too cold in the winter?

Michelle Addington: Too cold and too hot. One of the reasons we’re in our current quagmire is the development in the latter half of the 19th century of dilution-based environmental systems, the idea that heat and moisture are diluted by ventilation air. We added the cooling coil onto that in the 20th century, but the basic concept of dilution — taking what you have and mixing it with a different air stream — was so far ahead of its time that it became embedded in place. We think about theories of physics and technologies: the theories themselves are stable and last for centuries, whereas the technologies emerge, evolve, then become obsolete in rapid cycles.

Architecture is so far behind on thinking about bodily senses. I find this ironic; supposedly everything we do is about the physical environment we create, particularly the environment we see, yet we don’t understand how we see. We certainly don’t pay much attention to how we actually feel. We cede responsibility for that to some type of neutral environment, without understanding the interaction of our body with that environment.

Lian Chang: So it’s not about giving certain environmental conditions to the building as a whole because the building doesn’t care; it’s we who care?

Michelle Addington: Yes; the Number 1 exchange for the body in a building — and every student learns this and somehow it just disappears — is radiant temperature. One of the things I’ve proposed is that we can create a baseline level of dilution that deals with the environmental loading of the exterior.

Lian Chang: So it doesn’t feel stuffy?

Michelle Addington: You have to deal with moisture. You have to have a certain amount of fresh air and actually allow your building to breathe. I would never live in an insulated house. This house isn’t, which is one reason I chose it. I replaced certain windows but … there’s a leaky, or partially open, window in every room, all year ‘round.

Lian Chang: And that gives you enough ventilation?

Michelle Addington: Yes. Once you have that as a baseline, there’s always a low-level heat, so I keep the house heated to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Everything else is done by radiant temperature, by understanding the positioning of my body near what a cold sink would be — a cold sink being a window. It’s a question of moving your body around in relationship to those things.

Lian Chang: Not being too close to it …

Michelle Addington: In the wintertime. I put up a shade system — just a regular paper shade; it doesn’t have to be insulated. A piece of paper would stop losing radiant heat. One can do it vernacularly by understanding … that the important part to position is actually this part [gestures].

Lian Chang: That’s the neck and chest?

Michelle Addington: As long as that’s somewhere near a heat source. If you have an LED television, that’s actually a fantastic radiant heat source.

Lian Chang: Laptops and iPads?

Michelle Addington: Great stuff. You start paying attention to how these things work in relationship to one another, where you should position yourself so that your body is in proximity to the hottest part of it. Or vice versa. Think how we would design buildings for this. It’s not a question of moving someone around the building, but of understanding where vertical surfaces are. We have chilled ceilings, we have heated floors, but those are not radiant systems. Those end up operating by convection and create incredibly homogeneous environments. If I want to deal with the body, I’d actually have a chilled vertical panel or a small heated surface.

Lian Chang: I’m envisioning a cold winter night in a cave and people sitting around a campfire.

Michelle Addington: There are times when you just want to lay by the window and feel the heat of the sun on your body. There are times when you just want to be in a corner. There are times when you want to feel a fresh breeze. You want to have those opportunities, but so much of our building has been designed to try to control that homogeneous environment. People are unwanted perturbations.

Lian Chang: We create heat.

Michelle Addington: Not only do we create heat, but we don’t behave properly. Rudolph Hall [at Yale] underwent an extensive renovation five years ago. They eliminated operable windows because they were putting in a state-of-the-art HVAC system but couldn’t afford override controls to prevent people from opening windows. There’s this idea that to make the system work properly, you have to control people’s behavior, that people are the problem as to why buildings don’t perform better. Instead of trying to deal with smart glazing, why not invent one tiny panel where the smartness would be in how it directs heat radiation at neck level? That would be discrete and strategic.

Lian Chang: And that might create different experiences within a building.

Michelle Addington: I like to think of it as creating sensual pleasure. What the body needs for health is minimal: we need a certain amount of fresh air; temperatures not too hot or below freezing. So the rest of it is in dealing with definitions of comfort and determinations of thermal pleasure. Our entire HVAC systems are designed as if both are one and the same, but comfort is actually very local in terms of parts of the body, whereas health is the part that depends upon dilution. You need the dilution for health, but you don’t need it for comfort, so separate the two.

Lian Chang: You once wrote in Harvard Design Magazine about not designing buildings as objects but just designing “so an intelligent environment might no longer be an environment. It might be a set of autonomous and transient and discrete responses that will happen once and disappear.” That’s a beautiful idea, but it’s also hard to understand what that might be. Is it reasonable to infer that we may not have buildings as we know them in 2050?

Michelle Addington: I’m wrestling with two ways of thinking about it. One is pushing people who are working in advanced technologies to step beyond what they’re doing and try to imagine this future. But since I’ve gone to Yale, the majority of my work has been with developing countries, so I’ve been looking at it from a different standpoint: I’m thinking much more about dealing with the circumstances in which half the world’s population find themselves. Whereas for years I was working on the smartest way to use advanced technologies very discretely, now I’m looking at the dumbest, cheapest infrastructure one can create that would provide for a large variety of needs, where money is and who can invest.

We have a situation in Bangalore [India] where the energy use is going up an astonishing 10 percent a year. But Bangalore is also where you’ve got 200 transnational software companies coming in, all of which are looking for uninterruptible power and are willing to pay for it. Are there ways to design for them that can be leveraged to serve a much greater public good?

Lian Chang: In terms of the provision of electricity?

Michelle Addington: That’s the beginning, but I want to think beyond that. We’ve been looking at a new type of efficient fuel-cell system. The problem is that almost anything that creates energy gives off huge amounts of heat. Can we use it for public hot water heating and start to look at complementary public-private infrastructures — what is owned privately to serve a private need, and what are the possible public goods that can spin off it? The building and the energy are contained and belong to the private owner, yet the public good exists in a different domain. What is the most minimal set of interventions that one can take? I’m looking for where those intersections occur. Architects can think about the possibility that you’re shifting from one thing, which is supplying this client’s need, to another thing, which is, how do I serve a large population?

Lian Chang: Do you think that in the future there will be buildings, whether they’re the Modernist buildings of the early-20th century or today’s buildings, that are a great burden for us? Do you think it will be easy to adapt our future use of those buildings?

Michelle Addington: I’m very bad at predictions. I’m always wrong, and I’ve been surprised to see how much I rethink things. We can treat almost all buildings as being dumb armatures. For example, I’m a big proponent of direct current systems. Many of the people working on [it] want to replace a building’s infrastructure; but I say, no way — you want a whole new electrical infrastructure? It’s not rational to think that way. Instead, I’d love to see a clip-on system, bringing in some direct current to buildings to supply digital needs, and it actually clips on the building. The more we embed technology into buildings, the more we’re investing money in things that don’t allow us freedom to insert something. I could heat my whole house with a dog-bed heater, a horizontal panel the dog sleeps on that can be hung vertically and provides all the radiant stuff I need for my body. That’s a clip-on. I do think that the sealed building is going to be one [in which] you’ll want to see the seal broken in some way, to see the walls become much more breathable.