Building Orientation and Energy Efficiency, Part 3

  • 03 March, 2020

I write this blog post as a personal reflection about the additional effects of terrain and how they can affect building construction and planning. Although this post is not directly connected to climate and energy efficiency per se, it demonstrates the necessity of understanding how the concepts of wind flow, temperature, and terrain can affect building design and development in both a positive and a negative way.

I saw firsthand the devastating effects of fire in the community of Paradise, California a couple of months after the infamous wildfire left the town in a charred entanglement of destruction. I was not there for my own personal gain but to offer an academic discourse to propose rebuilding the community through the proposals of my design students. More importantly, I was there to offer solidarity and hope for rebuilding. From what I saw, and through the stories I heard from the survivors, it was incredible that so few lives were lost.

I am not a stranger to the aftermath of natural disasters, having also witnessed the destruction of communities due to hurricanes, tornadoes, and flooding. However, nothing could have prepared me for the destruction at Paradise.

The question that was continually asked by the community was how to make communities safer, especially in areas prone to wildfire. As this is my profession, I could not help but have that in the back of my mind and I pose it to you, the reader because I have yet to find that answer.

To understand rebuilding is to understand the source of destruction. Much like the illustration of the previous blog post of wind, air temperature, and terrain, the same can be applied with natural disasters like wildfire.

Air rises when heated. As air is heated in a valley (via sun or fire), it flows through the valley with increased speed, constricted by valley walls (the Venturi effect) and rises up and over the valley walls. Paradise is situated at the top of multiple valleys, and the fire was exacerbated by the strong winds blowing through those valleys, causing it to spread at great speed.

Building Orientation and Energy Efficiency, Part 3

This is not to gloss over the great complexities of this particular disaster-there are a multitude. The first two parts of this post examine the role of the environment in building design and siting for energy efficiency. However, architects are also charged with protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the public. In that light, it is imperative to understand the potential negative effects of building siting with these factors, especially in regard to microclimates. The ARE exam will almost certainly not get into these complexities but rather will focus primarily on strategies for energy efficiency. However, in practice, it is important to have a universal understanding of these strategies and to weigh the pluses and minuses in order to balance energy efficiency, design, and the duty of the architect to the public-especially in areas prone to disaster.

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