TECHNE 20 (2020): Time and architecture

Architecture and adaptation

Sergio Croce
Dipartimento di Architettura, Ingegneria delle Costruzioni e Ambiente Costruito, Politecnico di Milano, Italia
Published September 18, 2020
How to Cite
Croce, S. (2020). Architecture and adaptation. TECHNE - Journal of Technology for Architecture and Environment, (20), 33-38.


«The architectural work transcends the architect, goes beyond the moment in which its construction takes place, and therefore can be contemplated under the changing lights of history without its identity being lost with the passage of time» (Moneo, 1999).

The relationship between the work of architecture and the conditions that stem from the passing of time, together with the ensuing changes, has always been subject of discussion. This debate has focused, in particular, on the safeguarding of the identity of architecture from a historical perspective and of modern architecture, in addition to the necessary cultural, procedural and technical tools.

As of today, it appears this debate is not part of a conceptual backdrop in terms of the architectural project, even if the designer’s inspiration (more or less at the subconscious level) is fuelled by the idea that the work may have an indefinite duration.

Moneo addresses the topic of the defining characteristics of today’s works of architecture and the conditions for their conservation. He holds that one can speak, within the realm of possibility, of a “timeless architecture”, provided that the architect sets this objective during the design phase and is willing to shoulder the responsibility that the building will lead a solitary life when it will no longer be under the architect’s sphere of influence. The architect therefore needs to put his or her full professionalism into play to secure conditions that prevent that the inspiration behind the project is altered once time passes.

The architect notably draws attention to elements of design associated to flexibility, the multi-functionality of spaces and the necessary outer compactness of the building, understood as elements that contrast the obsolescence of identity.

Moneo’s conceptual position should therefore inspire the same attention to design as other aspects that are just as crucial today and concern the physical and performance changes in the way buildings are constructed these days, elements that are gradually exacerbated by the incipient climate change as a result of global warming.

The introduction of the time dimension in the architectural design of the concept of adaptation takes on a renewed importance today and constitutes an inescapable ethical and social objective that delivers added complexity to the project.

Complexity is today’s paradigm and influences all sectors and disciplines: it touches upon the environmental, social, cultural and productive fields, not to mention, of course, its interaction with the architecture of buildings.

In particular, themes such as sustainability, the reduction of the impact of buildings upon the environment, and the reduction of energy requirements have led to a steadily growing attention on design.

For this reason, new materials, components, construction systems and new control procedures have appeared on the market at an unprecedented pace in recent years: novelties that have set a radical change in the world of executive design, that is, the architecture of construction.

What is still missing is an approach, or, likewise, a radical strategy, that can guide and support projects and the world of construction in an effort to adapt to the effects of the now visible, yet gradual, climate change.

One gets the impression that the technological attributes of projects revolve around fittings with a purely geometric coherence, pre-packaged solutions that are not necessarily consistent with one another, trendy technological gadgets or solutions based on individual experiences. All are certainly praiseworthy, perhaps slightly ideological, but nonetheless inspiring a sort of cultural and regulatory conformism.

What emerges is a design method based on the notarial review of regulations according to a static vision of the building quality throughout time. Negatively paraphrasing Plato, here we have an immovable vision of eternity.

Yet the availability of new technologies, scientific knowledge and simulation analysis tools offer the opportunity to conceptually overturn projects based more on the knowledge of the physics of buildings and their performance rather than the environmental alternatives.

The conceptual foundation behind Moneo’s thinking, which essentially integrates the ability to adapt to the design objectives is therefore extremely topical given the expected rise in temperatures that is already under way and involves the entire construction sector.

According to the moderate scenarios outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the global warming trend will gradually worsen in the Mediterranean basin. In 2050, the average temperature could increase up to 2 °C and could exceed 5 °C between 2050 and 2100 compared to the reference period 1961-1990.

Summers, in particular, will frequently include intervals with temperatures up to 38°C caused by heat waves. This will only increase the energy demand for air conditioning units in buildings during the summer. Otherwise, heating will not be turned on as often and demand will drop.

Already in 2016, the “National Strategy for Adaptation to Climate Change” report published by the Italian Ministry of the Environment emphasised Italy’s vulnerability to the risks triggered by extreme weather events.

In 2017, the document was updated with targets linked to the strategic objectives of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. 

These included the need to promote experimental adaptation measures at the building and neighbourhood scale.

This constitutes a strategic target for the upgrade of the current energy policy, now based on NZEB (nearly zero-energy buildings), towards climate-responsive buildings that minimise the use of air conditioning and further reduce the dependency on energy and minimise environmental impact.

Focusing on the critical issues behind the climate emergency, these concern not only those matters related to the physical and performance-related obsolescence of elements and components of the building enclosure, but also – and above all – to the potential effect on living conditions and the social, health and economic-related issues pertaining to the fabricated setting.

These measures need to be taken in coordination with policies connected to summer mitigation for urban living spaces by means of widespread reforestation based on blue-green techniques (Croce et al., 2017) capable of maintaining the temperatures of the interior spaces within an acceptable, comfortable range, in an effort to reduce energy-intensive cooling systems (Frank, 2005).

As will be discussed later, the current policy instead relies on installations and their incremental innovations to remedy future functional deficiencies in current construction systems, an approach that considerably increases energy requirements and exacerbates the environmental impact.

This approach foreshadows a future energy-dependent, interior-based lifestyle, similar to the one seen in the Arab Emirates, where streets and squares are used to move by car and lack the cultural and social value at the basis of our traditions. 

Thirty years from now, that is, from now until 2050, would be a sufficient technical time to implement truly sustainable mitigation programmes.

With regard to the aforementioned innovation trend on the technological support of architecture, it should be noted that, since the period of comparison with the environmental conditions that induce the physical obsolescence of the construction is limited, new technologies can feature intrinsic fragilities or aspects that have not been analysed during the design phase.

This refers, for example, to the effects of wind: according to research on wind power stations based on international weather data, wind speeds are increasing, a positive development for these kind of power plants since they can actually produce more energy. Nevertheless, climate change will lead tropical cyclones and tornadoes, particularly in the Mediterranean.

More intense wind will, for example, affect the structure of dry-mounted façade components, as well as the appearance or increase of rainwater infiltration due to the effects of wind.

At the same time, higher temperatures could accelerate the weathering of thermoplastic materials and increase internal tension due to thermal expansion.

From an experimental perspective, additional exposure to average and maximum temperatures, the average and maximum moisture and the heating and cooling rates require that the test methods currently used for ageing, including cyclical ageing, need to be updated.

It is therefore important to start investigating new techniques and technologies that anticipate such events in a proactive manner, with adaptations that can be implemented in advance or be formulated on scheduled intervention thresholds by means of replacement upgrades or added performance, similarly to what is required by Directive (EU) 2018/844.

The current Italian legislative and regulatory reports on energy conservation are centred on the efficiency of installations, indicating that the building has the exclusive function of controlling the incoming and outgoing thermal flows through the enclosure.

This is a conservative approach based on over-insulating infill walls, high thermal resistance of windowed components, direct gains and the closed-window installation management of the hygrothermal environmental conditions inside the building. 

The approach is certainly consistent with the climate of central and northern Europe, where energy conservation is a persistent issue in winter; however, it is not particularly consistent with Italy’s climate, which features a more complex and diverse geography, where the summer period is generally considered the most critical. Italy’s climate should suggest adopting a natural dissipative approach in most parts of the country.

The “system-dependent” logic of the current energy regulation embodies a retrograde approach that clashes, as mentioned above, with Italy’s tangible culture, where the direct relationship with the external environment is a way of life.

The erroneous nature of this approach is strikingly evident in the fact that, according to the regulation, the evaluation of the performance of buildings is performed exclusively on the enclosure – without taking into account the efficiency of the system. This implies that the construction as a whole cannot contribute to mitigate the effects of climate change!

This ill-informed absurdity results in the proliferation of buildings without inertial mass, even in climates that are less extreme than those of Italy: buildings can easily overheat in hot weather conditions unless an air conditioning system is used (thankfully, these are not yet mandatory). And this despite the building’s energy efficiency plaque contains three smiley faces. This approach results in hyper-insulated construction systems lacking internal inertial masses: sun-based heating in the winter can easily require cooling, on top of the cooling needed during the summer that is taken for granted.

The time may be ripe for a fresh start. We need to creatively reconsider the principles of design by fostering a cultural revolution that lies outside comfortable ideologies and simplifications inscribed in an exclusive, regulation-based conformism.

An innovation based on climate-proofing techniques aimed at optimising the relationship between the building and architectural systems and the urban spaces, in the quest for a more environmentally friendly quality of life. To this end, the adaptive capacity of humankind must be harnessed using the scientific foundations of building physics, general physics and the biology of the natural environment, all elements that are readily available following many years of research (EEA Report, 2017; Hahn and Fröde, 2010).

Italy features significantly diverse climate conditions ranging from the Alps to the Apennines, it also includes hills, lakes, plains, seafront, countryside or urban locations that define significantly different levels and forms of environmental stimulation on the building systems. This is potential that should be harnessed using adaptive solutions, where the building, with its own performance, tends towards a reduced operating time of the installation support. Nowadays, there are many examples of climate-responsive architecture with their own temperature regulation to draw inspiration upon. Using a hybrid approach, these solutions are based on the “free running” concept of the building, whereby the use of the system installation is limited to short periods.

The principles of adaptive comfort, now regulated by the EN 15251:2007 European Standard, the knowledge gained over time on the physics of the building and the availability of models and dynamic analytical simulations allow assessing buildings to adjust convenient temperatures during the summer and adaptively maintain under control obsolescence caused by gradual climate change.

While practising a climate-responsive approach, this potential should lead to rethinking the building systems and towards self-generated temperature control solutions, where the air conditioning system only turns on in case of emergency (Croce and Poli, 2007).

The study of new systems based on design should be at the centre of this renewed thinking.

For example: passive or active inertial performance of the building, dynamic shielding, architectural orientations and configurations, internal modules that facilitate air circulation and natural ventilation, projections for shade, spaces with double openings that can be calibrated or deactivated depending on the season, natural ventilation enhancement systems (solar chimneys, ventilating façades, double-height duplexes), new modules and window sizes that highlight the importance of ventilation, geothermal air cooling systems and more.

The networks, or intelligence, found in buildings today are composed of wiring, sensors and electronic devices aimed at connecting the user to service devices and to provide intelligent equipment, installations and systems. Nevertheless, the time may have come to experiment with new conceptual systems which deliver their own intelligence to the physical and geometrical building system in a way that this can calibrate itself not only depending on the different seasons, but also by adjusting to the future progressive climate changes.

The functional rigidity of the present-day construction systems and the dynamism of the system devices that compensates for it must now be contrasted with the possibility of rendering the construction system and its components intelligently dynamic, in a manner that directly ensures that internal conditions are suited for summer – making an effort to adapt to human nature and its precious versatility.

The sailboat represents the paradigm of this approach: a reference model in terms of energy efficiency that is distributed between technical systems and the structure’s organism.

In a sailing boat, the sail’s layout changes when environmental conditions change and the engine is used, or should be used, only when waters are extremely calm. A motorboat can certainly never be as efficient as a sailboat, even if fuel consumption is reduced to a minimum: the same goes for a climate-responsive building.

The idea is a building that minimises the number of days of the installation system’s operation, where the relationship between the building and the installation is more sustainable and with a lower environmental impact than the politically correct approach behind the present-day design conventions.

Many researchers who have investigated risk analysis and climate proofing have highlighted how an adaptation based on the concept of “incremental is enough” and the optimisation of existing structures could lead us towards situations that are finally unsustainable from a social, health and economic standpoint.

The term “transformational adaptation”, adopted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and thoroughly described in the European Environmental Agency’s “Urban adaptation to climate change in Europe 2016”, an indicator-based report that highlights the opportunity to adopt proactive approaches in an effort to optimise, even in a gradual manner, the systems composed of urban spaces/buildings. These actions are intended to adapt these constructions to enhance resiliency and be more prepared to face ever-increasing climate risks. Only then can the risk of overheating in urban areas and building systems turn into an opportunity for a critical, thoughtful, creative and truly intelligent renewed way of thinking on how to innovate both the architectural design and the development of efficient support technologies (Lonsdale et al., 2015).

As mentioned above, given the deteriorating environmental conditions, the architectural building system should move towards the search for a functional and performance dynamism, one that can counteract the aggravated indoor conditions.

A dynamism that revolves around, as previously noted, the natural ability of humankind to adapt and is consistent with a deeply rooted social behaviour. The building’s enclosure is not a permanently sealed barrier: instead, it is an intermediary tool, providing a physical and psychological contact with the outside world.

Currently, the enclosure is conceived as a two-dimensional technological unit. Taking an innovative approach, instead, it could be conceived as a three-dimensional volumetric unit that features new requirements and adaptation performances.

A technological unit in essence, one that is comprised of components with variable structures and modules that can be manoeuvred as an intelligent network when external conditions change and gradually vary. A unit that is comprised of embedded volumes and unified spaces that optimise the intermediary function between the interior and the exterior. An intelligent technological unit that is coherently integrated into the building system and relies on flexible modules, natural ventilation enhancement, thermally inertial technical supports, passive cooling techniques and dynamic shielding or intelligent occlusion systems.

This is entirely conceived along the lines of a design and regulatory approach in which intelligent networks and the adaptive quality is sought, enhanced and evaluated – not only in terms of the building, but referring to the system composed of the outdoor spaces/buildings.

In addition to the expected increase in the average temperature by 2050, cities, and thus buildings, will experience a critical degree of overheating as a result of phenomena such as urban heat islands and heat waves, unless blue-green mitigation techniques are adopted to reduce the thermal forces that affect buildings, something that is happening in many cities around the world.



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