High Praise for Low Tech

10 october 2013 / architecture / words alice davis

At the World Architecture Festival, where the most advanced and ambitious buildings are rightly celebrated, a less likely theme emerged.

 

Baumschlager Erbele's Office 2226 in Lustenau, Austria
 
Image by Eduard Hueber

 

Dietmar Eberle of Baumschlager Eberle gave one of the three keynote speeches at this year’s World Architecture Festival. Like several other speakers – including Shimul Javeri, whose project is discussed below – he focused on how values of permanence and sustainability can lead to a more democratic architecture, an architecture that aims to serve the masses and the people of the future. Eberle discussed how this can be achieved through buildings that last 100 years, not 20 years; buildings should be designed to adapt to change, and to last long into the future. “We should try to optimize the period where the building sustains itself,” Eberle says. According to Eberle, architecture must also aspire to an aesthetic that is accepted in the social and cultural context of a building’s place. It requires a return to “weekday architecture, not Sunday architecture.”

Baumschlager Erbele's Office 2226 in Lustenau, Austria
 
Image by Eduard Hueber

 

Much of what Eberle believes hinges on a low-tech approach to architecture. Low-tech automatically engenders the use of less resources and lowers operating costs for the lifespan of the building. Eberle is one of the architects who is pushing the low-tech approach to its limits. With an approach that echoes the saying, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it, his firm has been experimenting for many years with the ways in which a building’s inner temperature can be optimized to comfortable levels without the use of heating or air conditioning. “How can we do a building without using any technology?” he asks. “How can we manage the relationship between the building and the surroundings by using more intelligence?”

 

Shimul Javeri's Crafted Workspace Factory in Karur, India

 

After many buildings that have explored this route, this year Baumschlager Eberle finished an office building, 2226 in Lustenau, Austria, which has no heating or cooling systems and no mechanical ventilation system. “And we still guarantee temperatures not less than 22, not more than 26 degrees,” says Eberle. “People are very surprised, but the idea is very simple.” Instead of the building reacting to technical solutions, it’s designed to react to the people inside. “The building only reacts to the impact of you as a user in the building. You increase the temperature, you produce humidity and you transfer oxygen into carbon dioxide. As a user, you don’t react to the building any more, but the building reacts to you.”

 

Shimul Javeri's Crafted Workspace Factory in Karur, India

 

In Europe, the extreme heat and high humidity is not such an issue, but another speaker at the festival demonstrated how a low-tech approach has also worked in tropical climes. Shimul Javeri, of Shimul Javeri Kadri Architects in India, presented her Crafted Workspace textile factory in Karur, Tamil Nadu. This is a hot dusty town, where many of the factories have been built in glass and equipped with air conditioning. However, as time passes, factory owners invariably switch off the cooling systems to save on costs. With this project, a comfortable environment for workers was created by protecting the inner factory from the harsh environmental conditions outside.

 

Shimul Javeri's Crafted Workspace Factory in Karur, India

 

SJK Architects built an 18-inch-thick stone cocoon for the building, using locally sourced rubble, that insulates the interior from the heat, and a vaulted roof that allows in shaded light. Small courtyards and vegetation also help prevent temperature gains and enable wind flow, “the water bodies in the courtyards serving the dual function of allowing hot air to leave and harvesting rain water,” Shimul Javeri says.

 

Shimul Javeri's Crafted Workspace Factory in Karur, India

 

“Every single thing was done using local crafts,” she says, and by sourcing local stone, wood, hardware and labor, the resources and costs were minimized. “Low tech is low resource, but it requires high design,” Shimul Javeri. “We keep our work low on resource by using the innate natural context, culture and materials of the place that we build in.”

And in case anyone still doubted the efficacy of this approach in practice, she added: “I received a letter from the factory owner that said productivity had increased two-fold since they moved in.”

 

baumschlager-eberle.com

sjkarchitect.com

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