Traditional vs. Modern

We should recognize that vernacular architecture all over the world, especially in the warmer climates, had evolved ways of building to achieve acceptable levels of comfort. These ways of building meant that the building configuration and its fabric would largely attenuate adverse climatic conditions in favor of thermal comfort. If additional devices were required to enhance comfort there would be of a supplementary nature. This strategy when compared to the modern building practice would be inherently more energy conserving.

When we compare any contemporary building with a traditional or a vernacular building, we cannot ignore the difference in time and cultural context. Firstly, the standards of comfort people seek today are much higher. In fact, an empirical analysis of the modern day needs of comfort standards would reveal that there is an increasing dependence on high energy systems to maintain ideal indoor conditions irrespective of the varying natural conditions outside. In the wealthy parts of the world it is now taken for granted that buildings will be installed with air-conditioning and heating systems. In the poorer parts of the world too with increasing urbanization and gradually rising standards of living there is a sharp rise in the demand for air conditioning and heating.

Also, unlike most traditional buildings, the functions that contemporary buildings serve are specialized and demand multiple levels of sophistication in terms of building services and control over the indoor environment. For facilities such as hospitals, laboratories and pharmaceutical production plants there are likely to be very precise requirements for control of air borne dust, temperature and humidity. Luxury hotels, department stores and cinemas would each have their peculiar needs for a controlled indoor environment.

These two factors led to the heating and air-conditioning industry adopting standards for defining comfort. These standards which were worked out by the American and European industry institutions for their home markets were adopted practically across the globe along with the spread of heating and air-conditioning technologies. These systems are generally based on the use of electricity and fossil fuels as sources of energy. It is estimated that today about 30 percent of all energy consumption is attributable to buildings and their operation. Heating and air- conditioning systems account for about 60- 70 percent of energy consumed in the operation of the buildings where they are installed.

Some important questions arise:
  1. Should we reject universal comfort standards and work out standards according to local climates and cultural expectations?
  2. Can we learn passive building design strategies from traditional architecture that would produce comfort with minimal dependence on energy intensive technologies?
  3. Can we invent low cost passive and active systems that are affordable and environmentally sustainable?
  4. Since the regions that will see a sharp rise in demand for higher comfort in buildings are mostly in warm climates, should we pay more attention to low energy cooling