Old Buildings, Healthy Buildings, Sustainable Buildings

An interesting paper confirms what many concerned with building design have long suspected, but which had lacked (to some degree) empirical support: that older buildings, built according to traditional building practices are healthier than modern buildings built to ‘state of the art’ newer standards. In other words, those old foggies that used drafting boards, and were deeply suspicious of computers actually did know what they were doing. Article published in the Public Library of Science Medicine Journal:

Natural Ventilation for the Prevention of Airborne Contagion
Facilities built more than 50 years ago, characterised by large windows and high ceilings, had greater ventilation than modern naturally ventilated rooms (40 versus 17 ACH; p < 0.001). Even within the lowest quartile of wind speeds, natural ventilation exceeded mechanical (p < 0.001). The Wells-Riley airborne infection model predicted that in mechanically ventilated rooms 39% of susceptible individuals would become infected following 24 h of exposure to untreated TB patients of infectiousness characterised in a well-documented outbreak. This infection rate compared with 33% in modern and 11% in pre-1950 naturally ventilated facilities with windows and doors open.

Opening windows and doors maximises natural ventilation so that the risk of airborne contagion is much lower than with costly, maintenance-requiring mechanical ventilation systems. Old-fashioned clinical areas with high ceilings and large windows provide greatest protection. Natural ventilation costs little and is maintenance free, and is particularly suited to limited-resource settings and tropical climates, where the burden of TB and institutional TB transmission is highest. In settings where respiratory isolation is difficult and climate permits, windows and doors should be opened to reduce the risk of airborne contagion.

Two relevant processes suggested:

(1) Re-examination of Traditional Knowledge & the Educational Process: It provides another basis for re-examining traditional knowledge in Architecture, and fits in with my own suspicion that contemporary university-based education is missing a component of the older, craft-based education process, which included an apprenticeship period. Modern Architectural education nominally does have an internship, but the process is deeply flawed, and the universities usually teach that traditionally acquired knowledge is suspect. (Related post: Types of Knowledge) A big part of this problem is that Architects are taught to consider themselves Artists or perhaps ‘professionals’ (whatever that means) but are very rarely taught to consider Architecture a craft, that is, something that is comprised of both utility and beauty. Part of that is the mistaken belief that “art” is superior to “craft,” when in fact it is quite elementary that the problems posed by the practice of a craft are of enormously greater interest than those of art*.

(2) Cross-Disciplinary Imperative: It opens the door for Architecture to become a truly cross-disciplinary effort. In that effort the rediscovery of traditions of knowledge within Architecture means that Architecture can participate in this cross-disciplinary effort in novel and unexpected ways.

There are many factors working against both of these processes, though. First, there is the division of labor in many firms between designers and project architects, which can limit design to a kind of aesthetic techne, and separates detailing from aesthetics. The result is an architecture that often lacks texture and the well-crafted feeling of a well-done , well- thought-out structure. It is no accident that many of the most successful up and coming firms are closely tied to the craft of building technology. (I would think of firms like von Gerkan Marg.)

Second, there is the fear Architects have of doing anything innovative, even though they see they role of the Architect gradually being diminished.

* A personal judgement, to be sure. However, consider this short excerpt from von Neumann and Morgenstern’s Theory of Games and Economic Behavior.  Realize that the acceptance of craft, having both utility and aesthetic dimensions, requires as a minimum, a certain adherence to socially normative measurements of utility.  Art, on the other hand, is driven , as Kandinsky would say, by ‘inner necessity.’  With that brief explanation, the applicability of the following quote should be clear:

“Thus, Crusoe faces an ordinary maximum problem, the difficulties of which are of a purely technical–and not conceptual–nature as pointed out. ….Consider now a participant in a social exchange economy. His problem has, of course, many elements in common with a maximum problem. But it also contains some very essential elements of an entirely different nature.  He, too, tries to obtain an optimum result.  But in order to acheive this, he must enter into relations of exchange with others…This is certainly no maximum problem, but a peculiar and disconcerting mixture of several conflicting maximum problems.”

Old Buildings, Healthy Buildings, Sustainable Buildings

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