Making sense of buildings

Architects today are preoccupied with ‘green’ thinking, ‘eco’ design and carbon footprint. Fundamental to designing and realising all this, it is vital to have an understanding of what makes for a good performance, healthy and cost effective environment. Architect Christopher Sykes examines how our senses are influenced by what we perceive, what we see and what we hear.


Money apart, many things deeply influence our lives – such as food, comfort, appearance and our own physical senses.

Daylighting, for example, not only changes building envelope design and the ambience of interiors but positively influences people. It affects how they behave in their environment, changes their circadian rhythm and improves their well-being.

The wellness benefit of natural daylight in educational facilities is well documented. In a study by the Heschong Mahone Group, consultants in the field of energy efficiency in buildings, students in classrooms with the most daylighting progressed of a year 20% faster on math tests and 26% faster on reading tests than those with the least daylighting. Similarly, comparison between students with and without skylights showed 19-20% faster improvement.

There are many examples in the UK but interestingly there’s a very topical new project from the States. This is the Amy Biehl Community School in Santé Fe, one of 57 around the country named a Green Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. It was designed by Greer Stafford/SJCF Architecture. It does more than help students learn how to be environmentally conscious; it also helps them live it. The winners were recently honoured in a ceremony in Washington, D.C. The school is now touted by administrators for its environmental awareness, which includes being LEED certified and incorporating energy saving diffused daylighting through Kalwall skylights and wall systems which eliminate shadows and glare.

Of course, the benefits of great daylighting apply just as much to public and commercial buildings, retails outlets, offices, sports and leisure centres.

Our senses are also influenced by what we see around us and, apart from the natural landscape, this is largely shaped by the built environment. Tower blocks, for example, are not everyone’s favourite building. On the other hand, the Peachey House Ilford reverses this; people actually get a kick seeing the restructuring and refurbishment of apartments converted from a large decaying 1970s office block and car park. Here, we have a building which not only meets all the requirements of eco/green performance but has being dramatically highlighted with Rockpanel Chameleon cladding to make a bold aesthetic statement which lightens our lives. It’s the first use of this cladding in the UK outside of Holland.

Equally good external lighting, especially at night, is not only paramount to our visual sense but also to our security – as proven by the Golborne bridge, a bit of history which spans the Brunel designed great Western Railway in Kensington, London. Designed by Urban Eye, it has been illuminated using Roblon fibre optics and LED fittings supplied by Light Projects. The company has several ranges of fittings and accessories manufactured for their high energy efficiency coupled with long life, low maintenance and low life-cycle costs. Many of the new light sources can save up to 90% energy when compared to traditional incandescent light fittings.

In the same way that daylighting affects us, so also do acoustics. We all like peace and quiet and minimum noise and distraction. This is a particularly sensitive issue for children. Noise is now a major issue for designers, not just in schools and public places but also in the home – noisy neighbour behaviour, banging and blaring music and will blight people’s life, sometimes generating retaliatory violence.

That’s why in schools, sports centres, public areas and homes, the simple solution of using acoustic panels on ceilings and walls will make such a major contribution to comfort. In schools, for example, they not only reduce reverberation time but offer high performance noise absorption in the study areas which need to be quiet, calm and healthy and in the play areas which, because of their hard surfaces, are traditionally very noisy.

The new Danish Bagsværd School, which amalgamates two local schools, gives the impression of a modern building with a sense of harmony and space. It’s a good example of how Troldtekt acoustic panels have been used throughout, providing architectural cohesion in the school’s many rooms and ensuring good acoustics in claswsrooms and the double-height canteen.

Similar acoustic ceiling tiles are used in many UK schools, such as those which were specified by Architype architects for Oakmeadow School, Wolverhampton, one of the UK’s first Passivhaus primary schools.

Rewriting the rules

We sense it and we know it – there are many important green technological developments about. For example, photovoltaic modules are commonly being integrated into glass facades. In other words, the glass facade is no longer just a daylight introducer, it’s a fundamental, source of both power generation and solar shading and energy saving.

It’s similar nanotechnology which gave rise to the remarkable increase in glass insulation performance – essential when architects have to tussle with the twin conflicts of maximising daylight while saving energy. This has been achieved with materials such as low-E coated glass or aerogel, the world’s lightest and best insulating solid. This is used, for example, within the Kalwall diffused daylight system achieving a remarkable U value of up to 0.28W/m2K – making it almost as effective as a solid insulated cavity wall.

Last but not least, an important innovative concept which has taken almost a decade to develop, are modular systems, used in other industries but never before been viable in house building. This technology means that a house can be constructed in a factory environment – a process which is almost three times faster than existing methods. With a strong focus on sustainability techniques and a 98% waste recycling rate, modular building means is not only fast and cost effective but very green enjoying superior thermal and noise insulation and lower energy costs.

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