uurimusi arhitektuurist ja teooriast
investigations on architecture and theory

Kalle Komissarov. Architectural Techniques

Everyone has most likely heard talk of the sustainability diagram ad nauseam. You know those three bubbles that intersect each other – social, economic and ecological sustainability. It goes without saying that houses cannot be designed and plans cannot be drafted according to such diagrams. The most that this kind of diagram can do is to spread an ideological message. And that message is: form follows sustainability!

Several key words denote environmentally aware architecture and construction: natural conservation, environmental conservation, sustainable or ecological architecture, energy conservation and ecological construction. The concepts of this new idea have not yet gelled through discussion, all the more so that it is a multidisciplinary field with suitors from all points of the compass. This article focuses on architecture and its relationship with the sustainable way of thinking. Sustainability due to the circumstance that it defines in most general terms the problems of the current era while leaving sufficient space for thought concerning architecture.

In the case of sustainability, reference is primarily made to the interdisciplinary approach, which combines economics, ecological and social sciences (the so called sustainability diagram). Economic sustainability should specify the maximum amount of consumption for the present generation so that future generations will not have to suffer because of it. Ecological sustainability refers to the principle that society must protect systems that support life in order to continue existence on Earth at all. This concept is based on the presumption that some kind of limit exists, which if crossed will lead to catastrophic and irreversible changes in the biophysical world. The third sphere of sustainability is associated with social themes and refers to the distribution of prosperity between different generations. The presumption for this is also the assertion that future generations have an equal right to the ecological system and the benefits that come with it.[1]

The concept of ecology (ecological architecture) is used in terms of architecture and construction in Estonia. In the case of ecology, however, society or the economy are never mentioned, rather mostly only the organic world and materials are spoken of. “The main principle of ecological construction is the environmentally friendliness of construction as an essential element of the living environment, and of all its stages of development.”[2] By making such great generalisations, however, architecture loses most of its power. Ecological architecture is in danger of limiting itself as a hobby of do-it-yourself builders who like to mess about with bulrushes or paints made with curds. Actually, all architects have to form a position for themselves in terms of environmental questions, which is also what this periodical is aspiring to. The sustainable way of thinking is not at the same time a hindrance to creativity, rather arguments must be found from architecture that would supplement this concept. Similarly, green ideals cannot be depended on alone. Specific examples are needed. Regardless of how noble ideals can be, nobody wishes to part with a high quality of life for the sake of some sort of “trifling” sustainability.

Architectural theorist Jeffrey Kipnis has said that architecture is not storytelling; rather it is the phenomenon that comes with those stories.[3] It is appropriate to emphasise this in the case of sustainability as well. Storytelling through different media also creates different phenomena. And if architecture is approached through energy conservation or sustainability, the types of results this kind of combination produces and the varieties of material phenomena accompanying it are important. The so-called synthetic vernacular should be the objective/result of this kind of practice.[4] Farm architecture is after all a vivid combination of location specific ecological, economic and social themes. The present day exhibits of the Open Air Museum were the most sustainable buildings of their time. Their technologies, however, cannot be directly transferred to the present. Many pivotal historical events have completely erased traces of preceding ways of life. Yet the synthetic vernacular can be constructed if the expectations and technical possibilities of contemporary society and the same kind of balance with the environment are taken into account. It is synthetic because there is no time for experimenting over the course of many generations, and combinations with many variables have to be played out by computer.

Sustainable buildings need not always be built of traditional and natural materials. As a broad generalisation, it can be said that there are two strong schools of sustainable construction in architecture – high-tech and low-tech. Norman Foster and Paolo Soleri can respectively be considered representatives of these two schools. Norman Foster’s friends solve environmental problems with technology.

Early high-tech architecture is open for everyone to experience. For example, the Pompidou Centre in Paris created by Renzo Piano is a symbol of a clear constructive diagram and a technical building. Everything is visible, even all piping, every last pipe is on display to the viewer. Its structure consists of units. It is so simple that you feel as if you could put it together yourself. Archigram is one example of this kind of architecture and it was also utterly technology centred. Consider for instance their Instant City, which could even be translated as “do-it-yourself city” – a gigantic circus descending from the sky.

Turning our gaze to Renzo Piano’s present day work, we see that it has consistently remained the flagship of high-tech architecture. Yet his design projects have undergone a radical change. Technology has become invisible, so to speak, even if structural construction models and other smokescreens are still displayed at exhibitions. The structure and the technology regulating the interior climate of the building have become inscrutably complicated. Even the transparent glass façade does not expose how the building functions.

The Read Group (Renewable Energies in Architecture and Design),[5] which has nowadays developed into an international star and which the above-mentioned architect also belongs to, made a breakthrough in 1993, when they gained the full support of the European Union thanks to the conference that took place in Florence. The Frankfort Commercial Bank high-rise building and the renovation of the Reichstag building in Berlin are landmarks of eco-tech architecture.

The spiritual leader of the other architecture school favouring low-tech is Paolo Soleri, who as a former follower of Frank Lloyd Wright built a prototype city named Arcosant in Arizona.[6] Its fundamental concept is arcology. This compact three-dimensional settlement that is closely interwoven is in contrast to urban sprawl as a system that wastes land, energy and time, and isolates people from one another and from society. Condensation and the preference of small dimensions makes it possible to radically conserve resources in Arcosant – only 2% of the surface area of an ordinary American city is needed to carry out the same functions. The town itself externally most closely resembles a cosmic hippie village.

In his book Sustainable Architecture and Urbanism, Dominique Gauzin-Müller mentions environmental humanism, social environmentalism and environmental minimalism as trends in environmentally aware architecture in addition to low- and high-tech architecture.[7]

Environmental humanism is the middle way between the extremes of low- and high-tech, combining traditional materials with innovative industrial elements (for example, the buildings of the Behnisch Architects). Social environmentalism originated in Germany and Scandinavia in the 1970’s. It denotes emphasis on social responsibility and often promotes itself with “do it ourselves” slogans.

Environmental minimalism denotes the pragmatic direction that has recently emerged incorporating environmentally conservational ideas into architectural solutions without any great fanfare – for example, the buildings of the Baumschlager & Eberle (see photographs 4-5) and Herzog & de Meuron architectural bureaus.

Within the boundaries of Europe, sustainable architecture is in very different positions from locality to locality. Environmentalism is a cultural phenomenon with considerable political and economic influence in Scandinavia. Newer examples like the Malmö dwelling fair and the Viikki settlement in Helsinki are architecturally acceptable. Another region that clearly emphasises sustainability is Switzerland. In Switzerland, the goal was set to reduce CO² emissions by 10% by 2010. This led to the creation of the Minergie trademark, according to which new buildings began to be classified. The Minergie standard promotes energy conservation, renewable sources of energy, economic competitiveness, and reduction of environmental pollution and exhaustion. The achievement of these goals is aspired to through the reduction of heating and electrical consumption. Generally speaking, Switzerland’s construction sector consumes energy as follows: heating and cooling 65%; construction 15%; hot water 10% and consumption of electricity 10%. Minergie projects use only 35% of the energy consumed by ordinary buildings.

The Minergie standard has been intensively advertised. Although it was originally intended for individual dwellings, the government extended it to all government-subsidised buildings from the year 2000 onward. These projects are evaluated by experts and consultation is provided free of charge. Some banks even offer reductions in interest rates of building loans for Minergie buildings.[8]

Examples of how strict environmental standards can contribute to architecture in a positive way can be found in the work of the Herzog & de Meuron Architectural Bureau (HdM) that operates in Switzerland (see photographs 1–3). Naturally, HdM bases its work on architectural ambitions when designing buildings, but their skill in elegantly resolving technical environmental issues and ability to draw inspiration from all those limitations that seem to be cumbersome also merits attention. Consider an example from architectural history from the work of Le Corbusier, where sunshades (brise-soileil) had to be used on the façade of the Unité d’Habitation in Marseille because otherwise the living rooms would have overheated. Nevertheless it is to a great extent the façade in particular that made this building the symbol building of its era and which Le Corbusier used later as well so many times. Brise-soileil created unprecedented architectural effects in the façade. The influence of this idea was so great that the façade became a standard type (like Alvar Aalto’s stool) and became a part of the general architectural vocabulary. The Unité d’Habitation remains a very environmentally aware building even by contemporary parameters and this is to a great extent due to the façade in particular, which among other things keeps the natural ventilation of the building functioning, so to speak.

Sustainability is a matter of technology and in the case of buildings, it often means specific technical solutions. At the same time, all these “architectural techniques” do not indicate what to do but only how to do it. Deciding which technique to prefer is thereby becoming ever more complicated due to the expansion of available options. The only thing that is clear is that the subject matter of the environment cannot be overlooked.

Examples / photograph captions


Dominus Winery, Napa Valley, USA, 1998. Herzog & de Meuron.

©Margherita Spiluttini

The building is located on the West Coast of the USA north of San Francisco where the days are very hot in the summer and the nights conversely are cold. The façade of the building consists of metal netting filled with basalt rocks, the original function of which is the reinforcement of retaining walls and riverbanks. The heat capacity of the façade is high in order to even out the large daily temperature fluctuations. The rocks heat up during the day and radiate the heat back at night, thus keeping the temperature uniform. The reinforced concrete construction of the building in turn further equalises seasonal changes in temperature.

The size and thus the density of the rocks taken from a nearby canyon vary according to the function of the interiors and the conditions situated behind them. The rocks in the façade in front of rooms that have to maintain a uniform temperature are smaller and laid densely. On the other hand, the rocks in other places are larger and placed more sparsely. The netting filled with rocks makes it possible to control temperature more precisely than in the case of an ordinary stone wall.


Helvetia Patria Head Office, St. Gallen, Switzerland, 2003. Herzog & de Meuron.

©Margherita Spiluttini

The expansion of this head office located in St. Gallen meets all the rigid requirements of the Swiss Minergie standard. The annual energy consumption in Minergie buildings is a third less than that which an ordinary new building would consume. The savings begin, for example, with the use of heating oil. The volume of heating has been reduced by 80% during the winter heating season and the heating energy requirement of the new office building is only a quarter of what the former office required. Heating oil is used only on the days with the lowest temperatures of the year since the building obtains its primary heating from a highly efficient heat exchanger. In addition, glass with low heat conductivity and an automatic climate control system that uses active cooling units for cooling were also used in the building. The architects designed lighting for the building that can be used for lighting table surfaces as well as for general lighting. In this case, the lamps are simply turned toward the ceiling, which is painted white.


3. IKMZ Library, Cottbus, Germany, 2005. Herzog & de Meuron.

©Margherita Spiluttini

The library of the University of Cottbus cost 500 million kroons and consists of rooms joined together in succession, which pass through the entire building from the basement to the top storey. The reading rooms that extend upward through two or three storeys function as a buffer against intense solar radiation, evening out rapid fluctuations in temperature. Protection from the summer sun is achieved by the cumulative effect of Venetian blinds between the layers of the double façade and the text pattern printed on the exterior glass. The Arabic, Slavic and Latin alphabets are depicted on the façade. The density of the printed pattern corresponds to the different directions of the façade in relation to the points of the compass (solar radiation) and the requirements of the rooms located behind it. The technical system that controls the interior climate of the building consists of many interconnected parts for achieving maximum energy savings. The technical equipment includes heat exchangers, geothermic energy pumps, gas burners and boilers. In order to reduce the stratification of heat that takes place in rooms with high ceilings (warm air accumulates at the ceiling level, the glass façade radiates cold), the air of each storey of the library is heated separately. Fresh air is pumped through underground cooling pipes in order to achieve passive cooling. In the summer, the airing out of rooms at night is also used to cool the massive structural elements of the building.


Mitterweg Residences, Innsbruck, Austria, 1997. Baumschlager & Eberle.

©Eduard Hueber, Archphoto.com

In order to lower the rent for the average income, architects as well as developers in Europe are under the pressure of lowering the cost of social housing, in terms of construction as well as sustenance. The Mitterweg Resi- dences do not only conserve energy, but also use high standards of residential design and a special quality of form. Compact building volumes with relatively small exterior surfaces and highly insulated exterior walls are combined with a very efficient environmental control system. Both units consume about 70% less energy than one conventional residential building. Costs were also lowered by accessing eight apartments each per story from one central stairwell. The design of the multi-layered facades is similarly striking. The wood lattice fronting the peripheral balconies softens not only edges, but also offers privacy for the inhabitants.[9]


Lohbach Residences, Innsbruck, Austria, 2000. Baumschlager & Eberle. ©Eduard Hueber, Archphoto.com

This project demanded economically and ecologically optimised residential construction. Hence the decision to build cube-like structures with interior access and a projecting balcony zone able to be closed off from the outside with copper sun protecting elements. All ecological low technology possibilities of today were applied to these houses including solar energy panels, heat recovery plants and rain water use. Thus practically everything achievable – without high tech – was achieved.[10]

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  1. Peter Trummer, Associative Design Studio Summary. Berlage Institute, Rotterdam, 2006
  2. Ecological Technology Centre – www.ceet.ee
  3. Jeffrey Kipnis’s master class notes. Berlage Institute, Rotterdam, 2006
  4. Peter Trummer, Associative Design Studio Summary. Berlage Institute, Rotterdam, 2006
  5. Read Group, European Charter for Solar Energy in Architecture and Urban Planning – www.nuclear-free.com/english/charter.htm
  6. Arcosant City – http://test.arcosanti.org
  7. Dominique Gauzin-Müller, Sustainable Architecture and Urbanism. Birkäuser, Basel, 2002
  8. Minergie Energy Conservational Building Standard – www.minergie.com
  9. http://www.baumschlager-eberle.com/default.asp?lang=2&page=1&view=2&data=20
  10. http://www.baumschlager-eberle.com/default.asp?lang=2&page=1&view=2&data=15