Arup Thoughts: Why are buildings still naked?

Adapting the outer layer of a building brings great benefits because it saves you heating energy in the winter and cooling energy in the summer. In reality, however, it's rarely done.


Adapting the outer layer of a building brings great benefits because it saves heating energy in the winter and cooling energy in the summer. In reality, however, it's rarely done. Courtesy: ArupSurely it's high time we gave our buildings some clothes. Being able to adapt your outer layer brings great benefits because it saves you heating energy in the winter and cooling energy in the summer. That sounds like a good strategy for buildings, but we almost never adopt it.

We need to take inspiration from clothing - an adaptation of the skin that gives humans a wide range of performance. It can be water resistant. It can be highly insulating, or cool and highly ventilated. And it enables us to express all sorts of changing messages.

Clothing can adapt your skin to suit the time of day, the seasons, the weather, your activity and your mood. In contrast, animals have to make do with an outer layer that is a reasonable compromise for their habitat. The best of them grow and shed fur or plumage to adapt a bit to the changing seasons, but they can do nothing about the weather from day to day. Animals have to burn energy to stay warm (or just accept a slowdown if they are reptiles) in cold weather and sweat precious moisture to stay cool in hot weather. Of course, there are some amazing adaptations and behaviors to make the best of it, but they don't have the same benefit as clothes.

Yet we choose not to clothe our buildings. So far, we have found it easier and cheaper to consume energy than to adapt the dress of our buildings. Running a gas boiler to keep a building warm in winter is like shivering in shorts and a T-shirt, while trying to keep your body temperature up by eating a constant stream of doughnuts.

If we are going to make buildings really energy-efficient in future, we should not assume they have to stay naked. We should clothe them in facades that can change performance properties over a wide enough range to eliminate the need for internal heating and cooling systems.

Of course, we should make the most of available solar energy - like basking lizards, and available cooling breeze and rain - like wallowing elephants. But we should not assume that wearing nothing but a pair of reactive sunglasses is enough to make our buildings smart.

More buildings need to dress themselves like Al Bahar Towers in Abu Dhabi or 1 Bligh Street in Sydney, which represent the state of the art in building clothes. 1 Bligh Street's double-skin façade features automated blinds that adapt to the sun's path, allowing optimal temperature and light control. Al Bahar has a responsive, dynamic skin thanks to its movable shading system, which reduces the effects of high ambient temperatures and intense solar radiation. However, for all its innovation Al Bahar's skin doesn't provide thermal insulation. So how can we take this idea of clothing buildings further? How can we configure a bigger range of clothes for our buildings and overcome the idea that a building is stuck in one skin?

Graham Dodd has worked for Arup for 18 years as a facade engineer and materials engineer, and became an Arup fellow in 2012. Dodd started his career designing domestic appliances, long before joining Arup. This article originally appeared on Arup Thoughts. Edited by Joy Chang, Digital Project Manager, CFE Media, jchang(at) 

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