The goal of architecture on the most primitive level is to provide shelter from the elements.
As has been done for hundreds of years, local characteristics heavily influenced the
construction of houses. From polar ice regions to deserts, people have found unique
ways of using local materials and geometries informed by local climate to achieve
this goal. These ideas in shelter have survived in many places of the world due to one unbeatable factor: their adaptation to such conditions and the needs of the inhabitants. They are Ecological Machines in and of themselves. In recent history, architecture and the building industry have become detached from their local parameters therefore creating increasingly inefficient buildings. A design ignorant of its environment is only capable of surviving at a high cost; both financially and ecologically.
It will be our focus throughout the course of the project to evaluate various building techniques, formal approaches, and materials according to their level of sustainability. True sustainability can only be achieved when thinking on a holistic level. In consequence, a comprehensive and holistic approach, permeating and connecting all layers, from the macro to the micro scale, is the only path leading to a true ecological solution. Everything must be connected and nothing should be wasted.
Departing from preconceived aesthetics and their need for technological life support, we wish to exploit what architects know best: geometry and material. Rather than swimming upstream – trying to fix things that need not be broken – it is our challenge to develop a site appropriate building through the computational tools of current architectural design. We believe the simple, stripped down combination of the two can truly create a sustainable building; one that is low cost, sustains itself and is designed to further a symbiotic relationship between the environment and the house working seamlessly off each other. There is no single fix-it all solution – no single apparatus that will convert a conventional house into a green wonder machine. But by exploiting a symbiotic relationship, the “ecological machine house” could work to have multiple interwoven functions combined to make the most efficient house possible, using the least material possible, minimizing waste.
Climate and Local Materials
Climate and the choice of local materials will play a crucial role in informing the formal appearance of the building. Whereas local materials are one straightforward way of achieving a certain degree of sustainability, a more complex approach is to have local environmental factors actually shape the exterior and interior of the building. Where the design of the house has been ecologically inefficient in the past, now the house must serve as the vehicle to collect environmental resources for optimal use through its geometry. Prevailing winds, precipitation totals, snow loads, sun angles are all points to be taken into account for and will leave their respective mark on the final product.
Architectural elements will need to be designed to perform multiple duties. They will be re-examined as to what they will need to provide and how they will need to perform in order to support the purpose of the ecological machine house on the whole. For example, rain water harvesting. The Syracuse area is prone to a sufficient amount of rainfall and large snowfalls making it an ideal location for rainwater/ snowmelt harvesting. Where a roof in the past may have been a tool to shed rain and snow, it would now need to harvest and collect the rain and the snow through an informed geometry. The roofing material would need to insulate and protect those it houses but could also be fit with “turbines” that could be utilized to collect energy through the flow of rain and snow, an effect generated from the new geometry of the roof. Another critical aspect is the prevailing wind. During the course of the project we will investigate the ideal shape that is the most advantageous in avoiding heat loss through wind stream – especially in the face of winter winds – and simultaneously using natural air currents for ventilation in the hot periods of the summer.
Furthermore, to avoid the need for extensive cooling in the summer period, the building will provide extensive thermal mass. The thermal mass will also serve to heat the space in the winter. An exemplary way to create this mass could be the use of sod for walls, calling back to the prairie houses of old for the re-investigation into the advantages of the dense material of earth—a very low cost (free) and abundant and local material. Sod walls have their own natural inherencies and properties. Sod is living, and the house could harvest the heat gain from composting (a technique that is used currently to keep livestock warm throughout cold winters on farms) as well as creating a by-product in the summer: enriched soil which could be used for gardens in producing food for the housing unit or producing a commodity to be sold for income.
Internally, the building is organized to drastically decrease the demand for technological measures informed by the main factors of the local conditions – temperature and natural light. The layout of the rooms will be dependent upon site orientation, following the course of the sun, thereby minimizing the demand for artificial lighting and thus taking full advantage of natural light. Staying true to the philosophy of the project, this house should not stand isolated.
The “ecological machine house” would redefine the community and what it means to be a community. Whereas before, community relied upon social interaction, a new community could be forged upon the sharing of resources as well as the built community taking on a new aesthetically redefined urban fabric—all from an informed process. Aside from the design project being of high sustainable standards in and of itself, affordable housing and neighborhood infill projects are two central components to enforce the sustainability of an entire urban area. By using available lots within the boundaries of existing settled areas the adverse effects of the phenomenon “sprawl without growth” are counteracted. These effects include immediate environmental factors and social elements. Sprawl increases the sizes of cities and rural land is lost to development, displacing wildlife and increasing the amount of impervious area. On a social level, neighborhood infill can strengthen communities that have literally been disconnected and fallen apart. Enabling people by means of affordable housing programs to live closer to city centers and with that closer to jobs, market places, entertainment areas, has the potential of decreasing the demand for transportation.