Tag: architecture of the fittest


shape in context

Bermann’s Rule (1847) – members of species are larger in colder parts of their range attributed to surface to volume ratio.

Bermann’s Rule (1847) – members of species are larger in colder parts of their range attributed to surface to volume ratio.

The natural world has many examples of adaptation to climate. The northern white-tailed deer has a lower surface area to volume ratio than does its more diminutive southern cousin and radiates less body heat per unit of mass, allowing it to stay warmer in the colder climate.  The southern white-tailed deer has a higher surface are to volume ratio facilitating heat loss through the skin, helping to cool the body.  The former is built to retain heat, the latter to cool.

vtvaThe advent of heating and cooling systems coupled with improvements in the building envelope and cheap energy have led to the homogenization of homebuilding. Compare the floor plan of a developer home in Vermont to one in Arizona. Apart from a little white cladding here and stucco there, the blueprints are the same. I grew up in a 1770’s home in Vermont that was four rooms over four (more volume to surface area). The traditional home in Virginia (where I now reside, apparently I can only live in states that start with “V”) is two over two (more surface area to volume). The former built to heat, the latter to breathe.  Vermont has 6006 heating degree days (measurement that reflects the demand for energy needed to heat a building), Virginia has half that number, 3304.   Vermont has 747 cooling degree days while VA has 1422 (twice as many).  Without air conditioning, modern heating, homes from the 18th century were adapted to conserve or reject heat — a strategy seen in nature and one which, when applied to the building industry, has low first costs. This is a strategy the Developer-Builder can easily adopt. It’s called Regionalism.


safety in numbers

In Aristotelian terms, techné, craftmanship, craft or art, was considered the imperfect practice of nature.  Nature was regarded as teacher and keeper.   In the three millennia that have elapsed since the Greeks first pondered the making of things, techné has been replaced by technology which sees nature as something to harness, nature is conceived in subjective (human) terms.  We have much to learn from nature, from the birds and the bees, as we consider how to retool our thinking.  Take for instance the penguin that survives extreme cold by huddling, thereby creating a microclimate.  Living in a community, apart from the social benefits, creates a microclimate where the free exchange of heat and cold is sanctioned; in winter the upstairs neighbor benefits, in summer the gift is exchanged (through radiation and surface transfer). Happily, this is a strategy the Developer-Builder can embrace because party walls equals less expensive perimeter equals lower costs.   Safety in numbers.


engaging the developer

The developer-builder operates under a series of environmental pressures the most important of which is to sell homes while making a profit.  The Developer-Builders consider first costs, first because profit equals marketability less first costs.  Lifecycle benefits have no power over a builder unless those costs can be justified in sales.  Not surprisingly, strategies such as solar aquatics systems, solar panels, geothermal, etc., have no attraction to the Developer-Builder because the long-term costs savings are realized by the Owner.  So where is the magic line between additional up-front costs and increased marketability?  Robert Hauser of Stonehaus Development in Charlottesville, Virginia thinks an increase in costs of 3-5% is an acceptable risk if his company can successfully brand its houses as energy-efficient.

That leads us to consider adaptive options that are within the Developer-Builder risk-tolerant zone.  So the question is, how can we achieve carbon neutrality by 2030 in a cost-effective way?  We must do so optimizing passive strategies: community, massing, envelope design, and passive solar – all strategies with lower first costs. This is what it will take to transform a profit-driven industry.