My new job puts me in a large windowless warehouse-like building, much of which has been turned into office space, cube farms with offices embedded in the walls nearby. At any given time nobody inside knows if it is raining or if the sun is shining, if it’s day or night. As in most commercial buildings, the lights and ventilation fans run almost all the time, which seems costly. One nearby building has a small wind turbine on it that runs a lot of the time, however, and another I see near work has a solar panel on the roof. All that has made me consider what the buildings of thirty years from now will be like. Certainly they will be quite different, and I expect the inevitable rise in the cost of fossil fuels, and all energy sources “in sympathy”, to be an important influence on their architecture. So what will commercial buildings be like in the future?When energy costs rise, and as they become significantly higher than they are today, energy saving architecture will also become a priority. The windowless warehouse-like commercial buildings of today will no longer be built, as they will no longer be economically justifiable. In their stead will be buildings far more sophisticated than exist today, with better insulation, natural ventilation and many skylights and windows.
Exteriors, besides including placement of a lot of windows and skylights, will maximize the insulation value. Since labor continues to be one of the largest expenses in construction, exterior sheathing will be engineered to have extremely high R values for its thickness, probably through the incorporation of sophisticated materials such as airogel. Glass or other transparent material used in windows and skylights will have similar insulation characteristics. Inner and outer doors or, better yet, revolving doors will be standard to reduce heat gain and loss.
Inside, drop ceilings and acoustic tiles will give way to the need for less expensive illumination. Where drop ceilings are needed or desired, skylights will still penetrate them with mirror lined tubes. Lighting will be provided by a combination of natural lighting and alternative energy-fueled electric lighting.
Ventilation will similarly be provided using thoughtful design combined with solar and/or wind power. Skylights and windows with variable reflectivity will be controlled by the building’s HVAC systems to regulate heat gain according to the season. Thinner and higher R-factor (more effective) insulation types will be developed. Buildings will be smaller for the number of people they will house, more efficiently designed to limit the internal volume that must be heated and cooled as well as the outside surface area where heat can be gained or lost.
Future fashions could affect how buildings are designed, too. While people will continue to dress more warmly in winter, new fabrics and more sophisticated clothing will keep them comfortable no matter what the conditions, possibly by increasing and decreasing ventilation and light through the fabric as desired. With more effective clothing not only can money be saved by widening the ambient indoor temperatures in buildings, but perhaps also by our new ability to tolerate less temperature stability and slower heat-up and cool-down times under weather extremes.
The need to conserve resources may dictate that future buildings be built of long-lasting materials and designed for flexibility in the form of quick and inexpensive reconfiguration, and low maintenance. More buildings may be built partly below ground to reduce heat gain and loss. Carefully engineered and managed roof gardens may become almost standard on larger buildings. Cost issues will cause a high demand for products and labor needed to retrofit existing buildings, and designers may take on the additional challenge of designing buildings to be easily retrofit with improved technologies as they become available in the future.
The buildings we have today were, for the most part, built in an era of extremely cheap energy, and that fact is reflected in many aspects of their design. There will be a time, possibly soon, when the cost of energy will make the older, less efficient buildings unaffordable, and the need to retrofit or replace them will become greater and greater. As costs rise and time progresses, we will see the emergence of entirely different ways of designing buildings. Anyone who thinks about it can imagine a variety of ways such buildings might look. Will they blend in with the local natural environment? One thing is pretty certain: they will be much more efficient than the buildings of today.
I am only scratching the surface in this entry. Let your imagination go. Remember that tomorrow’s great ideas always sound crazy or dumb today, or we’d already be using or doing them. Move yourself into the future by learning more and sharing your ideas with others – the internet makes that easy. Keep looking for ways to save energy and asking the questions for which everyone needs answers. Tell your government representatives you want them to provide funding and support for basic research, and to support the development of better education systems to provide the scientists we will need, as well as literate people in every walk of life. Our taxes will be paying us dividends in the form of educated young people, who will run the world in an ever-more sustainable way, build the structures of the future, and take care of us in our old age. Hopefully we will spend our futures living happily in ever-more comfortable and efficient buildings.
As always, I welcome your comments.