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Architects around the world look to the past to introduce bioclimate strategies in designing greener buildings.

Some of the best new green buildings are those that challenge our ideas of conventional architecture—but don’t challenge the environment. Building designs that embrace and respond to the local environment, called bioclimatic architecture, as opposed to trying to thwart nature with mechanical systems, are seeing a 21st-century revival.

Much of the world’s architecture, prior to the 20th century, responded to the regional climate and could be considered bioclimatic. “if you look at older buildings, you see that people were very good at adapting to climate to get the maximum performance, but we kind-of got lazy once air conditioning and electric light came along at the turn of the last century,” says Patrick Leonard, the director of Paladino and Company, a green building consultant based in Seattle.

Over the course of centuries, builders around the world had refined different types of bioclimatic architecture, particularly in regions such as North Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Europe. For instance, the traditional Spanish hacienda design uses thick, thermally dense walls to retain heat or chill, thereby regulating temperature and creating a stable indoor microclimate, says Sam Kimmins, the principal sustainability advisor for the Forum for the Future, a global sustainable development organization based in London.

The haciendas have “small windows to reduce solar gain, or overheating, to the south, and larger windows to the north to bring in light,” he says. Similar thick-walled structures are found in ancient Greece, Yemen, and other regions.

Leonard pointed to the traditional high-peaked, curved roofs in China and Japan, developed to control stormwater and snow, as well as the indigenous architecture of Hyderabad, Pakistan, which has a structure designed to capture winds and channel air flow for natural ventilation.

Sod houses built by Scandinavian and nordic cultures hundreds of years ago were some of the first bioclimatic structures to integrate vegetation, says bruce Dvorak, a professor in the Department of landscape architecture and Urban Planning at texas a&m University. “With stone and timber and other supporting materials, the sod formed the bulk of the walls and insulated the house,” he says. “live sod was also placed on the roof. the living sod on the roof shaded the building during the summer and insulated the house during the winter.”

By the late 19th century, much of the world’s architecture had evolved to use characteristics of the building site and building fabric to create a comfortable internal environment, Kimmins says. Some tactics used were air flow across ponds to create natural cooling; plantings to create shading; a stack structure to bring about natural ventilation; or orienting rooms in different directions and adapting window sizes to regulate temperature.

With the advent of modern technology in the 20th century, contemporary design trends shifted away from being responsive to natural conditions and emphasized instead isolating buildings from nature to try to overcome those conditions. the evolution of technologies to thwart nature wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, Leonard says. 

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