Varun Kohli
Principal and sustainable design leader, HOK
Varun Kohli Principal and sustainable design leader, HOK

Varun Kohli sheds light on the performative and aesthetic aspects of building skins

It's better look beyond the superficial when it comes to the design of architectural skins, feels the architect.

Building skins represent the transitionary zone between external and internal environments, thus negotiating the dynamics of energy transfer continuously. They are also a primary medium of design expression and aesthetics. It is only through the convergence of performance and aesthetics that true ‘beauty’ can emerge. In the current context of emerging technologies, increasing performance goals and emphasis on occupant comfort and health, it is imperative that our design community re-examine the definition of aesthetics.

We know that building skins contribute significantly to peak loads through various thermodynamic processes including conductive, convective and direct/indirect radiation transfers. The impact of building skin design is not limited to energy conservation – but also thermal, visual and overall environmental comfort of its occupants. Using an analytical process to address environmental issues, can a design response emerge that re-defines the notion of ‘design excellence’? Is there a ‘sustainable design style’ that integrates passive and active technological systems…as a unified design expression? Can the design community move beyond its obsessive visual seduction…and look beyond to its performance?

“Energy and environmental effectiveness does not demand a stylistic response in architecture, but a more fundamental change in design approach,” – Vivian Loftness. This statement – in the context of a design studio – can be interpreted as a fundamental change in design process with incorporation of environmental analytics and its inseparable fusion to the final product, which may or may not have a resemblance to an architectural style. We know that, in recent trends of contemporary architecture, designers have mostly rejected association with any formal style and, in fact, have embraced a design language of differentiation – or ‘iconic’.

While designing any architectural project, typically a number of pragmatic project requirements must be addressed and incorporated into the design process including; structural integrity, programmatic and spatial requirements; minimum threshold for occupant comfort; local building code; and zoning compliance, among others. Some of these requirements cannot be ignored for the dire consequences they will cause.

The iconoclastic character of a design is mostly represented via its form and its ‘skin’. The moulding of such architectural forms and texturing of their skins is primarily in response to the designers’ vision of an aesthetic outcome. These design responses, in addition to achieving design intent, will likely achieve most pragmatic requirements listed above – but may not enhance the building’s energy and resource efficiency or impact comfort, health and well-being of its occupants.

Design Clues in the Vernacular
For any climate zone, geographical location and cultural terrain, clues to architectural design responses are clearly evident in its vernacular. Although climate patterns have remained almost constant (at least, until recently), what has changed is the way building typologies have evolved in recent times. Now, a designer must understand the vernacular that responds to its contextual climate and culture – but reassign those principles to a building type that has never been part of the vernacular.

I have found the process of assessing and applying vernacular principles to current-day building typologies particularly exciting with fulfilling responses. An office building project in Hyderabad, designed in 2008, was required to meet a minimum of 40,000sq-ft floor-plate – which was typically achieved for such buildings with a deep floor-plate. Such buildings used for IT-related work were typically found to be extremely inadequate in indoor environmental quality, including natural light and views. Even perimeter spaces were unable to take advantage of natural light due to poorly designed glazed façades that allow maximised radiation, thus forcing the use of internal shades.

The project, however, looked at typical vernacular residential buildings in the region that were mostly courtyard buildings, porous and with large overhangs to mitigate solar radiation, enhance air-flow and create semi-outdoor spaces. Applying (this form) to a modern office facility helps create narrow floor-plates as well as self-shading to its façade surface. This was enhanced by morphing the building massing and articulating its façade. The resulting building was found not only to enhance internal daylighting and reduce solar gains, but there was also an overall reduction in energy use.

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