A professor and researcher in building design believes we should be looking for lessons in the past as we head toward the future.
In fact, Alan Short, who teaches at the University of Cambridge, England, feels we need a far-reaching reinvention of how large buildings are designed.
Why? Because he is convinced that "the crisis in building design is already here."
Short has just published a book, The Recovery of Natural Environments in Architecture, in which he challenges the modern practice of sealing our office buildings, then cooling them mechanically.
Short draws on a 30-year career researching and lecturing, plus heading his own architecture firm.
"Policy-makers think you can solve energy and building problems with gadgets," Short says in a release distributed by the university. "You can't.
"As global temperatures continue to rise, we are going to continue to squander more and more energy on keeping our buildings mechanically cool until we have run out of capacity."
Instead, he says, his book shows how it is entirely possible to accommodate natural ventilation and cooling in large buildings by looking into the past, before the widespread introduction of air conditioning systems which were "relentlessly and aggressively promoted" by inventor Willis Carrier and other entrepreneurs.
Short says that "the majority of contemporary buildings have absolutely no resilience to climate at all.
"To make them habitable, you have to seal them and air condition them. The energy use and carbon emissions this generates is spectacular and to a large extent unnecessary. Buildings in the West count for 40 to 50 per cent of electricity usage, generating substantial carbon emissions."
Short likens modern buildings to patients on life support, yet "this fetish for glass, steel and air-conditioned skyscrapers continues.
"They are symbols of status around the world on an increasingly vast scale."
Short's book highlights the "art and science" of ventilating buildings through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the two chambers of Britain's houses of parliament and the design of ingeniously ventilated hospitals. He has done extensive modelling studies of the first Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md., which was designed by architect John Shaw Billings.
"We spent three years digitally modelling Billings' final designs and a brilliant alternative design," Short says. "We put pathogens in the airstreams, modelled for someone with tuberculosis coughing in the wards, and we found the ventilation system in the room would have kept patients safe from harm.
"We discovered that 19th century hospital wards could generate up to 24 air changes an hour. That's similar to the performance of a modern-day, computer-controlled operating theatre."
Short says the mindset behind these old designs has been lost and laments the disappearance of expertly designed theatres, opera houses and other public buildings where up to half the volume of the building was given over to ensuring everyone got fresh air.
He says he has designed and built a series of buildings over the last 30 years in which he tried to reinvent some of the ideas used decades ago, then "publishing what works as well as what doesn't."
He adds that to go forward into our new low-energy, low-carbon future, "we would be well advised to look back at design before our high-energy, high-carbon present appeared."
Among examples of Short's buildings, perhaps the best known is the Queen's Building at De Montfort University, in Leicester, England. Accommodating as many as 2,000 staff and students, the entire building is naturally ventilated, passively cooled and naturally lit, including the two largest auditoriums, each of which seats more than 150 people.
"The air conditioning industry has persuaded us that you can't do this naturally any more, and that it would defy progress to do so," Short says. "Huge amounts of a building's space and construction cost are today given over to air-conditioning instead."
Short's book, published by Routledge Company, is available in hard cover, paperback, and as an e-book.
Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org