Thursday, July 4, 2013

Avoiding Modern Glass Facades In Indian Architecture

We all admire the old cities of India, especially the residential quarters that were full of buildings designed during the great era of the master builders. We all especially love the work of the great Rajasthani and Gujarati builders, where meticulous detailing and carefully placed openings created spaces that are naturally comfortable and connected to the environment. Modern buildings typically use glazed facades in an effort to bring the outdoors in. But when we are in these buildings we rarely feel comfortable, nor do we get a sense of connection with the outdoors. What are we missing here?

In the era of modern architecture, glass facades were ushered in by Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and later Philip Johnson, and their contemporaries probably would not have been possible without the invention of air-conditioning. We recall modern architecture history that writes of Le Corbusier's pioneering Salvation Army building in Paris, that was comfortable when it was first occupied in the winter of 1933, but it overheated in summer and had to be retrofitted with operable windows and air-conditioning. After World War II, modern architecture ventured into buildings with deep floor plates and ceiling-mounted fluorescent lighting that all but gave up any link to what lay outside, except along their perimeters. After the oil-price shocks of the late 1970s and early 1980s, dark coatings and films were added in an effort to lower energy use, which further cut off people's connection to the outdoors.

Now we have glass coatings that can filter out more heat than light. But are they really comfortable? Developers tell us the advantages of the glamorous looking but thin skinned glass buildings are easier to lease and sell, (not the least because of the extra space they generate by avoiding walls, . But they then neglect to report that these buildings struggle with the glare and heat that come with large glass openings. Designers respond by closing shades, which kind of defeats the purpose of all that glass. And in high-rises, stimulating views are offset, for many occupants, by discomfort and vertigo—hardly the intended calming effect of a connection to nature.

In the Indian environment, we have all seen this problem over and over. In one building with floor-to-ceiling glass, the air temperature behind the south and west sides of the facade was 35 degrees centigrade as the  sun-saturated glass radiated so much heat that the only way to provide acceptable comfort was to drastically overcool the air. A broker of high-end commercial real estate told me recently that his more sophisticated tenants refuse to look at spaces with large south- or west-facing window walls.

Many Indian architects are now borrowing a page from Europe and building with narrower floor plates to allow more daylight into occupied spaces. They don't always realize, however, that when we put people closer to windows, we no longer need large floor-to-ceiling or even desk-to-ceiling window configurations. With thoughtful design of new narrow-floor-plate buildings, we think that developers could respond favourably to buildings with window-to-wall ratios as low as 25 percent.

When it comes to good window design, we can learn from buildings constructed a century ago, before the age of air-conditioning and fluorescent lights. As a community, we need to be more creative with facades, factoring in sun shading, glass type, and, yes, the amount of glazing. We can also explore other ways to bring nature into our buildings, such as material selection, live plants, and moving water. If we do these things well, we'll not only save energy; we'll also make people more comfortable and productive.

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