Are buildings everlasting? Unfortunately not. They, too, get sick and sometimes die.
The previous article of this series dealt with how design and use of solid wood can create value in a building, through design flexibility.
This time we will try to understand how mass timber design can best solve pathologies inherent to traditional construction.
The question is not trivial since a building tends to outlive those who originally conceived it, thus we are lead to the false belief that buildings can exist forever. A belief reinforced by the fact that, especially in Europe, many buildings are centuries-old.
Reality is very different from our imagination since not even the best construction can be exempt from the consequences of the natural law of entropy (gradual decline into disorder). Once completed, the building enters its entropic phase and begins to decay. The speed of the process is a consequence to how the building was structured to withstand the surrounding environment.
Buildings have a significant economical and sentimental value for all of us. They host us, becoming the dwellings of our affections, of our work and our aspirations. We use the universal expression “home” to identify them, adding sentimental value to the structure. Buildings could be compared to living creatures, and, like us, be affected both by good health and pathologies. Pathologies in buildings relates specifically to how they respond to the physical environment and how they react to wear over time.
Our emphasis is on understanding the symptoms, causes, and treatment of problem areas. The remedy could focus on fixing a specific issue, such as a leaking roof, or it could be more encompassing and address obsolescence through repair, refurbishment and retrofitting, in order to bring the building back to life (1). For existing buildings, the best practice is accurate maintenance. A periodic check up to establish a state of good health is a useful rule of thumb to extend their life.
What about our future buildings, the ones that will be built next?
We need to rethink the role of design and the use of materials in order to put a full stop to obsolete construction criterias.
The starting point for durability is design. A well conceived design can reduce and attenuate the time curve that, over the years, leads to obsolescence. Durability means “the ability for long time performance” and in a technical language is defined as “the period of the service life of a given material or system under specified conditions of outdoor and indoor climate and construction of the assembly.” The concept of durability doesn’t refer to the material on its own, but it implies its interactions – with the climate, for example. “Buildings that work well, that are loved and cared for, stay in service longer.”
There is a tremendous amount of energy embodied in a building and stored into every material. It comes from the amount of work done to process and assemble it. The longer the life of the building, the greater the opportunity to retrieve that environmental investment.
The first element to consider in the design phases is the climatic factor which influences the choice of methods and materials. Climate responsive architecture takes into consideration seasonality, the direction of the sun (sun path and solar position), natural shade provided by the surrounding topography, environmental factors (such as wind, rainfall, humidity) and climate data (temperature, historical weather patterns, etc.) to design comfortable and energy-efficient houses. Through this parametric analysis, it is viable to design a building with maximum protection against adverse weather conditions and at the same time to fully exploit the potential of its climatic position.
These methods include heat loss reduction, decrease in wind effects, ventilation provided for the inside spaces, solar energy for providing heating demand and protection of the building from undesired solar radiation, and control over weather humidity. These topics will be cover in depth in our next article.