Drawing on Ancient Technology, Architecture Firms Self-Cool Urban Buildings

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Rob Wells

Around the world we have seen rising temperatures, growing to record numbers nearly every year of the last decade, and it’s got some entrepreneurs in India thinking: could we use ancient cooling techniques in modern structures?

Right now, the primary way to cool down an urban building is with air conditioning, but that comes with its own costs. By 2050, it is estimated that air conditioning will use up 13% of the world’s total electricity and contribute at least 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere annually. Heat is worse in cities than in the country that surrounds them—even if that country is desert. From New Mexico to Australia, the individual cities’ temperatures are often 10-20 degrees Fahrenheit above the surrounding countryside.

A pair of architects out of Jaipur, India, Manit Rastogi and Sonali Rastogi of Morphogenesis, think they have a solution, and that’s to employ the use of two traditional Indian techniques of keeping buildings cool.

The first is to clad structures in a lattice screen hanging approximately 4 feet away from the facade of the building. This layer, inspired by the traditional jaali, acts as a thermal buffer. The second is to construct buildings above large open pools of water that are inspired by the ancient step wells dating back 2500 years. These wells act as a heat sink, plus the evaporation that rises from them cools the building. These two technologies combined can lower the temperature of a structure by 20 degrees in the summer.

But it’s not just the innovations of ancient humans that have inspired these architects. They’ve also taken a page from an unlikely source: termite mounds. An architect from Zimbabwe, Mike Pearce, found that the unique structure of termite towers, which can rise 20 to 40 feet above the ground, have a skinny footprint that faces north and south, giving the mounds heat in the morning and evening, but showing only a small thin side during the heat of the day.

Using this technology, he built the Eastgate structure in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare. Made from brick and concrete, they’ve found that this building can be 57 degrees inside when it’s 82 degrees outdoors.

While there may be no new ideas under the sun, we can see that recycling old ideas—from seemingly bizarre places—can make buildings cooler, energy bills more friendly, and everything more environmentally friendly.

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