Thermodynamic Interactions: Energy and Architecture

Javier García-Germán

During the last two decades design disciplines have evidenced a growing interest in energy, which has motivated the gradual introduction of a wide variety of ideas from different disciplines to the fields of architecture, landscape architecture and urban design.

Ranging from scientific concepts —e.g. energy efficiency, order through fluctuations or dissipative structure— to applied knowledge —e.g. material logistics or thermal physiological human responses— the range of energy-related phenomena has opened an expanded domain of parallel fields of knowledge which is disclosing new design potentials and opportunities [1], but is also hindering its understanding and practical application.

Thermodynamics, as the field of physics which studies the energy inte­ractions between systems, offers a basic understanding of heat exchanges, explaining how energy is emitted, transmitted and absorbed. The current building energy model —as Kiel Moe [2] has explained— conceptualizes interiors as an isolated energy system with a steady-state behavior. However, the existence of transient energy exchanges between climate, built form and human body, poses the idea that any construction is an open thermodynamic system in interaction with an ever-changing outdoor climate, which questions the steady-state model and introduces architecture into the realm of non-equilibrium thermodynamics.

Contrary to the conservative insulated model, any built environment is an open energy system which is immersed in a variety of dissipating energy flows. Dissipation takes place spontaneously whenever there is an energy gradient —for instance, a temperature, a pressure or a height difference— between a source and a sink. Accepting dissipating flows occur spontaneously and irreversibly, it is also true that these flows can be intercepted by devices that either use them or block them, store them or release them in doses. As a spatial and material construct built form can capture, transport, store and release energy, and thus orchestrate the flows of dissipating heat which traverse it. According to this idea Thermodynamic Interactions is divided in three parts —territorial atmospheres, material atmospheres and physiological atmospheres—, presenting a synthetic cross-section of the range of dissipating flows, sources and sinks which are relevant for designers.

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References
[1] The book De lo Mecánico a lo Termodinámico. Por una Definición Energética de la Arquitectura y del Territorio (Gustavo Gili, Barcelona 2010) Javier García-Germán edited, ambitioned not only to announce the thermodynamic turn but also to introduce the wide variety of questions energy has to offer to design practices. Even though this book was published in 2010, it was completed in 2007.
[2] Kiel Moe’s work is contributing to introduce with clarity and rigor non-equilibrium thermodynamics to architecture. See the article “Insulating North America” (in Journal of Construction History, vol. 27. January 2013. Pages 87-106) which anticipated the thesis of the book Insulating Modernism. Isolated and Non-Isolated Thermodynamics in Architecture (2014. Birkhäuser Verlag GmbH, Basel).
[3] The introduction of Prigogine’s non-equilibrium thermodynamics to architecture was staged by Luis Fernández-Galiano whose book Fire and Memory —written in the year 1982— introduced the idea that building and atmosphere form an open thermodynamic system constantly exchanging energy and matter. See Fernández-Galiano, Luis, Fire and Memory. On Architecture and Energy. 2000. MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts (Fernández-Galiano, Luis. El Fuego y la Memoria. Sobre Arquitectura y Energía. 1991. Alianza Editorial S.A., Madrid).
Almost simultaneously and independently Sanford Kwinter proposed with a more abstract formulation the need to introduce far from equilibrium thermodynamics and the arrow of time in architecture. These ideas were introduced through a various articles (see “Landscapes of Change: Boccioni's "Stati d'animo" as a General Theory of Models” in Assemblage, No. 19, Dec., 1992, pp. 50-65) and the book Architectures of Time which was written between the years 1984 and 1989 (Architectures of Time. Toward a Modernist Theory of the Event in Modernist Culture. 2002. MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England).
[4] Almost simultaneously and independently to Fdez-Galiano, critics such as Sanford Kwinter proposed with a more abstract formulation the need to introduce far from equilibrium thermodynamics and the arrow of time in architecture. These ideas were introduced through the book Architectures of Time which was written between the years 1984 and 1989 (Architectures of Time. Toward a Modernist Theory of the Event in Modernist Culture. 2002. MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England) and various articles such as “Landscapes of Change: Boccioni's Stati d'animo as a General Theory of Models” in Assemblage, No. 19, Dec., 1992, pp. 50-65.
[5] See Charles Waldheim’s article “Afterword: Ábalos Thermodynamic and Performance Turn” in Essays on Thermodynamics, Architecture and Beauty. 2015. ACTAR, Barcelona, New York.

Thermodynamic Interactions stems from the doctoral research which started at and the Harvard Graduate School of Design (Fulbright scholar 2003-04) and was further developed at the Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura de Madrid, and which has resulted in the Ph.D dissertation titled Thermodynamic Environments (2014 ETSAM, UPM). Whilst the dissertation explored the historical empowerment of thermodynamics and atmosphere in architecture across three thermodynamic environments —territorial atmospheres, material atmospheres and physiological atmospheres—, this book presents the contemporary expression of these same three realms, unveiling that current trends come from a century-long atmospheric history which is necessary to understand to critically asses present endeavors.