Why Building Geometry Matters by Allen Dusault
“In 1853 a rather eccentric gentleman named Orson Fowler published a book entitled, “The Gravel Wall and Octagon Mode of Building”. The book was a best seller of its day and it spurred a short-lived nationwide fad of building houses (and some barns) in an octagon shape, a radical idea then and now (he was also an early proponent of concrete in buildings which was a novelty in his day). It is estimated that 1,000 or so octagon houses were built across the country, a fair number of which are still standing. Although the book is all but forgotten its’ message is as relevant today as it was in the 1850s.
The central point of Fowler’s book is so logical and conceptually simple that even a fifth grader can understand its’ meaning, if not its implication. Briefly stated, an octagon is a more efficient shape than a square or a rectangle. The argument of course extends to the three dimensional form of these shapes. This is true both in terms of materials used to construct a building and the amount of volume that needs to be heated and cooled with approximately 25% more wall area for a rectangle than for an octagon. It is simple math – surface area to volume enclosed. Of course the shape doesn’t have to be an octagon – a hexagon, for example, is also more efficient than the ubiquitous rectangle.
Our love affair with the traditional rectangular shape for buildings means we pay added environmental and energy costs not once, but four times over the life of the structure. First, we pay in the construction phase – more building material means higher “embodied energy” in the building. That is a significant portion of the total lifecycle energy. We also pay for the added surface area with more fuel used to heat and cool a building than would be needed with less wasteful shapes. Greater exposed surface area also means greater maintenance and repair on the exterior (and potentially more damage from storms, hurricanes or tornadoes than a more efficient design). And finally, when the building comes to its end of life, more material must be torn down and hauled away. All that takes energy as well.
However, just because we are emotionally attached to our “plywood nostalgia box” homes doesn’t change physics. This is a critical environmental issue that won’t go away because it is “politically incorrect”. Surface area matters. The good news is our taste in building geometry is largely learned. And we can learn to appreciate new and different shapes, much like the shift in preference that developed for automobiles beginning with streamlining that occurred in the 1930s and 40s. But shifting our preferences in buildings shapes will require more than just waiting for a change in our preferences. A first step is to recognize the benefits of efficient geometries and then incorporate that into our sustainable building vernacular. And that could start a whole new wave of creativity.
When we think of green architecture, we need to start thinking outside the box.”
Read the full article at the source: iGreenBuild.com
Thanks to Cliff again for another good tip. Please send us your suggestions for new articles.