Sustainability as a Driver of Artistic Innovation

Artistic originality is rarely mentioned in the context of sustainable architecture and construction. For example, Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid-like buildings have not found a place in this magazine. In fact, when architects of this avant-garde ilk claim how their buildings do deploy environmentally-responsible features, their claims have seemed to lack credibility or at best sound like secondary rationales. I firmly believe, however, that environmentally-responsible thinking can be a fruitful driver of artistic innovation in architecture.

By Paul Raff

I myself came to the field of architecture driven by an interest in the poetics of the physical world—that is, very much from the artistic side.  In fact, for the first five years of my professional life, I exclusively produced installation and multimedia artworks, and I am still engaged in producing public and architecturally-integrated works, often generated in collaboration with other architects and artists.

Interestingly, it was in my work as an artist that I began to engage environmental themes.  This was not out of a personal desire to reduce carbon footprints, but because I was exploring currents in cultural ideology, not the least of which, toward the end of the 20th century, was a large and growing collective awareness of the environment.
When I began to practice as an architect, I remained fully focused on and committed to exploring artistic originality.  At the same time, I had become well aware of environmental realities, including an enduring recognition that 40% of human energy consumption is attributable to buildings. This is a stunningly poignant fact that has been previously cited by writers in this magazine. Quickly, strategies for sustainable building became integral to my creative design process.

It is encouraging that the pursuit of environmental sustainability [as well as social and economic sustainability] can serve as a catalyst for artistic innovation. Recently, as one example, a residential development in southern Thailand called “Bluepoint” provided an opportunity to practice this integrated approach. The panoramic views of the steeply sloped site caught my interest, as they had that of the developer. Socially, the challenge was to maximize the access to these views from within the residences while providing privacy from sight lines further uphill. Environmentally, the most significant challenge was potential solar heat gain.
From these realities Bluepoint’s most novel feature was born – its louvred facade system. In building-science terms, the louvre system forms the outermost layer of an exterior wall assembly. In highly glazed facades it reduces solar heat gain by more than 60%.  Artistically, its sweeping sculptural forms echo local vernacular influences, including that of the boats of nomadic fisherman, the first human inhabitants of the region [who still to this day curve and twist timbers over gunnels to sculpt their beautiful vessels]. The facade plays a visually rhythmic and dynamic game of “hide and seek” between interior and exterior. Though fixed and static, the louvre facade shifts in three-dimensional space with every change in viewer position and orientation.

Heat gain is a well-known challenge for buildings because it increases, sometimes greatly, energy consumption for cooling. This challenge has frequently been addressed with power-intensive air conditioning and with interior shading strategies that permit energy to enter the envelope. Bluepoint’s louvre facade system, by contrast, provides an exterior shading solution that limits solar energy from entering the building envelope while optimizing views from the interior.
The louvres are made from a wood-plastic composite [WPC] extrusion that is produced locally, rapidly, and cost-effectively. WPC is a relatively new technology that is increasing in usage, largely because it is economical, rot-resistant, and can be made from waste materials such as saw dust, peanut hulls, and discarded plastics. It is important to be aware, though, that when specifying WPC, due diligence is required to vet suppliers’ material content.

WPC products are typically extruded in profiles to emulate standard dimensional lumber for which they are generally substituted. For example, WPC is commonly used in North America in the construction of decks. The Bluepoint design, on the contrary, does not use WPC to mimic wood. Rather, it capitalizes on WPC’s unique structural characteristics, in that, relative to wood, it  is strong in tension but less resistant to torque and bending. These advantages are reflected in the facade’s skewed and curved geometries.

The facade also takes advantage of WPC’s extrusion-based manufacturing processes, utilizing its potential for extremely long, continuous components. It also uses a new custom profile with tapered, curved edges specifically designed for maximizing view angles and providing shade while yet promoting the illumination of the interior by indirect natural light. Within its unique configuration, the profile is also designed to function efficiently in all conditions. The result is an extremely cost-effective solution, one that is simple to manufacture and easy to install.

When all the above was explained to the developers, they appreciated the project’s sustainable strategies and stylistic originality. One of them suggested an apt marketing slogan: “The site is hot, the architecture is cool.”

Paul Raff is Principal at Paul Raff Studio Inc., Toronto.

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