Conversations on Climate: Victor W. Olgyay on Design and Ecology’s Interconnection

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Connecting Buildings to Address Climate Change
by Victor W. Olgyay

“We are not all weak in the same spots, and so we supplement and complete one another, each one making up in himself for the lack in another.”
Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island

In Pope Francis’ recent visit to the US, he referred to several interesting touchstones in America’s spiritual history, including Thomas Merton. Merton was a prolific writer, and often emphasized the importance of community and our deep connectedness to others as a nurturing aspect of spiritual life. The importance of connectedness is not only true of spirituality, but also applies to ecology, an idea we continue to relearn. We cannot throw anything out, because our discard comes back to us in the water we drink, the food we eat, or in the air we breathe. Our society is intimately connected; we all depend on the same resources to survive.

As the world’s leaders debate political solutions to our current climate crisis, brought about largely by our neglect of this idea, we can look to some very practical solutions within our built environment to protect and enhance resilient communities. In buildings, these broader connections to community exist as well. Buildings have traditionally emerged from context, been built out of local materials, fit into the contours of the landscape, and made use of the local climate to help heat and cool the structures. Almost inevitably, these buildings show a climatic response, drawn from the genus of place, mixed with human inventiveness. Between people and place a dialogue is evoked, a call and response that started long ago, and continues to evolve today.

This conversation has a science to it as well. In the mid 20th century many architects dove deep into the rationality of design, rediscovering how buildings can be designed to optimize their relationship to people, climate and place. Bridging technology, climatology, biology and architecture, the science of bioclimatic design was given quantitative documentation in Design with Climate, the 1963 text recently republished by Princeton University Press. The interdisciplinary approach to design that book describes remains the fundamental approach to designing high performance buildings today.

Integrated building design connects across disciplines.

Integrated building design connects across disciplines.

But today’s high performance buildings are often functionally isolated from our neighbors, from our community. Rather than emphasize connectivity, we have built our utility network on the idea that our buildings are at the consuming end of a wire. We aspire to make our buildings independent, but objectively we remain largely interdependent. By recognizing our commonality, we can reimagine our activities, so our buildings use connectivity to provide services that benefit the larger community as well as the building owner or occupant.

High performance solar powered buildings can use the electric utility grid to achieve net zero energy use over the course of a year. When building PV systems generate more electricity then they need, they can push it back into the grid, and when they need electricity, they can pull it from the grid, in essence, using the electrical grid as if it were a large battery.

While this is quite reasonable from a building end user perspective, what happens if we are drawing energy when the electricity is in great demand and pushing electricity onto it when there is already an excess of electricity? Looking at the system from the grid perspective is a different point of view. High performance buildings can make utility electricity problems worse.

By intelligently connecting buildings we can respond appropriately to utility grid needs, and provide services. To some extent this has been happening for many years in the form of “demand response” where building owners opt to reduce their power consumption when the utility is stressed in meeting demand. In turn, building owners receive reduced electricity charges.

But this is only the beginning. When we aggregate neighborhoods of buildings, we can provide a wide variety and quantity of services to the grid. In addition to demand response, buildings can (thanks to on site solar electricity generation) supply low carbon electricity to the grid. Buildings can shift loads, to use electricity when there is an over supply. Buildings (using batteries or thermal systems) can store energy for use later. Portfolios of buildings can even provide voltage regulation in useful quantities.

These ancillary products of high performance buildings are of great value economically to both the building owner and to the utility providing electricity and electricity distribution services. They are worth money, and a building that has always carried a utility operating cost can now be designed to have an operating income. And perhaps even more importantly, buildings communicating with the grid can help the grid run more smoothly, and by decarbonizing the electricity reduce the pollution and greenhouse gas emissions associated with providing utility services to us all.

Connecting buildings to act as an asset to the utility grid turns our current “end user” paradigm on its head. Individual projects can multiply their positive impact by increasing connectedness. As more of us coordinate with electrical utility systems, we have a stronger base of resources, a more resilient electrical grid, and more sources of income.

The bioclimatic design approach described in Design with Climate now has a renewed urgency. As we design our new buildings and redesign our existing buildings to purposefully engage with their context and climate and community, we can readily reduce building energy use and emissions at marginal cost. Connecting with climate, and intelligently connecting with the utility grid empowers buildings to have a positive environmental impact. With the issue of climate change looming ever sharper, the design community must recognize their deep connection to the climate issue, and take responsibility for moving the design professions and society forward to a solution.

In our commonality we find a larger, critical context that is set by our interdependence. Indeed, as Merton noted, in community we complete one another, and recognize our common home.


DesignVictor W. Olgyay is an architect and the son of the author of Design with Climate.

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.