Victor Olgyay: Architecture is the cause and solution to climate related problems

design with climatePrinceton University Press has just reprinted Design with Climate: Bioclimatic Approach to Architectural  Regionalism, by Victor Olgyay, more than 50 years after its initial printing in 1963. Design with Climate describes an integrated design approach that remains a cornerstone of high performance architecture.

Victor Olgyay (1910-1970) was associate professor in the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at Princeton University. He was a leading researcher on the relationship between architecture, climate, and energy. His son, Victor W. Olgyay, is an architect and principal at Rocky Mountain Institute and was instrumental in reissuing this book. For this updated edition, he commissioned four new essays that provide unique insights on issues of climate design, showing how Olgyay’s concepts work in contemporary practice. Ken Yeang, John Reynolds, Victor W. Olgyay, and Donlyn Lyndon explore bioclimatic design, eco design, and rational regionalism, while paying homage to Olgyay’s impressive groundwork and contributions to the field of architecture.

Victor W. Olgyay spoke to Molly Miller about Design with Climate then and now.

Did Design with Climate change design when it came out in 1963?

VO: It wasn’t really very popular in the United States when it came out, but it soon became genuinely popular in South America. Our whole family moved to Colombia, South America, so my father could teach bioclimatic design there. He did research with his students using local climate zones and generated very interesting regional designs and published different versions of Design with Climate in Colombia and Argentina. This was in 1967-70. There are still clandestine editions in Spanish and Portuguese floating around, as well as in my fathers’ archives at Arizona State University.

My father died on Earth Day, April 22, 1970. Soon afterwards the 1973 oil embargo began and energy became a serious topic. That’s when Design with Climate caught people’s attention in the US because here was a book showing architects how they could respond to critical contemporary issues. Design with Climate suddenly was adopted in dozens of schools of architecture in the US and became a popular textbook. The broad popularity of the book had to do with Earth Day and with the oil crisis, but in the architecture community it was seen as a keystone helping bridge the emerging environmental architecture movement and analytic regionalism. That’s when it began to affect how architects approach design.

What is bioclimatic design?

VO: My father coined the term “bioclimatic design.” Bioclimatic design uses nature’s energies to harmonize buildings with local conditions. The physics of the environment, such as solar radiation and the convection of wind are employed as formal influences to create a climate balanced design. A diagram in the book shows four interlocking circles: biology, climatology, technology, and architecture. The lines of the circles are soft multi-layered lines, emblematic of the riparian merging of these disciplines. Bioclimatic design takes these disciplines and considers them together. For me this is the approach of a polymath, where when you consider things from different worlds together, you learn something completely new. You have insights you wouldn’t have gotten if they were isolated.

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In this model, people are at the center of the diagram. Biology addresses people’s needs for thermal and visual comfort. Synthesizing these disciplines results in a superior architecture. My father believed architecture’s ultimate purpose is to provide a place for the human spirit to lift, and support the human endeavor.

On a more practical level, a large part of this book is devoted to a design process. What if climate informs the design? How can you optimize nature and apply it to buildings?

VO: What’s really different about this approach is that my father looked carefully at how these fields are inter-related and did the analysis. This process is shown in the book. He took fairly complicated data about climate and made it into manageable design steps. He advocated working with climate to reduce energy use by orientation, shading, natural ventilation etc. In one example, he used wind tunnels with smoke to visualize air currents. Seeing the air currents allows an architect to make adjustments in their design, perhaps slightly moving the edge of an overhang next to a building to optimize natural ventilation.

How is this book relevant today?

VO: Today, more than ever, we have identified architecture as the cause and solution to a large percentage of our climate related problems. It is impossible for us to transition to a low carbon economy without reducing the energy consumption of buildings. To do that, we need to take into account bioclimatic design and Design with Climate shows us how to get that into our lexicon again.

Integrated design has taken off. Today, we have a renaissance of people thinking about green design. Not only do we need to design with climate, we now have to design for a changing climate and address global issues with architecture.

But even though we can say green design is becoming mainstream, the concepts in Design with Climate are still widely overlooked. Let’s take shading as an example. Many ‘green’ architects are still cladding their entire building in glass, which is neither comfortable nor energy efficient and ignores climatic information.

Architects rarely recognize how a building affects people and the environment. It’s surprising to me that architects don’t use climatic information more. It’s a gift to be able to make a space that people find thermally and visually comfortable. That can make an inspired design! There are dire consequences to designing a glass box. It’s critical today for architects to have a modicum of morality in design. This is the awareness that Design with Climate brings. There’s no penalty for your design to work with climate, just benefits.

Has this new edition of Design with Climate been changed or updated?

VO: As an existing book, it seemed classic and I wanted to honor that. So we reprinted the entire original manuscript exactly as it first appeared. But we added some essays to provide contemporary context. Donlyn Lyndon worked with my father on the original research. John Reynolds, professor emeritus at University of Oregon, has been teaching bioclimatic design for 40 years. Ken Yeang, who has been working with ecological design with tall buildings, brings Design with Climate into the 21st Century. These essays each add color and context and show how Design with Climate was a steppingstone to our contemporary architecture.

What does this book mean to you personally and professionally?

VO: I have always been interested in the implications of architecture and form. Our work is important, and can have a positive impact in the world. My father’s book has reached hundreds of thousands of people and encouraged environmental architects. I am very thankful that this book has had that influence. It is an honor for me to assist with this new edition, so this book endures as an inspiration for others to honor the earth, and to support the evolution of the human spirit.