Thermodynamics Lessons

An Architectural Agenda for Energy

Kiel Moe 

What is the significance of energy for architecture? What might an architectural agenda for energy be? Unfortunately, these are difficult questions for architects because, in architectural discourse, energy is a vague term with imprecise denotations. Greater understanding of a few fundamental aspects about energy and thermodynamics is essential to a more substantive and systemic engagement between energy and design.

While based on universal energy laws, an architectural conception and formation of energy should be distinct from concepts and practices that emerge in other disciplines, such as engineering or ecology, because architecture has specific means and obligations that distinguish it from these adjacent disciplines.

The standing vagueness about energy in architecture has not gone unnoticed. This vagueness is in part a product of what Luis Fernández-Galiano described as a “scandalous absence of energy considerations in architectural analysis and criticism.” Architecture as a collective discipline has been most unambitious when it comes to energy. As the systems ecologist Howard T. Odum noted, “Ignorance about energy develops during times of accelerating growth.”. The function and behavior of energy systems matter less when highly concentrated energy resources, such as petroleum, are abundant. Inversely, the functions and behaviors of energy systems matter more when there is an increasing demand for diminishing resources – what will become a defining characteristic of the 21st century. Architecture would therefore benefit from a more precise understanding of what energy is and what it does, how energy systems are organized, and how they behave.

In simple but strict terms, energy is a measure of a system’s capacity to do work on its surrounding environment. The implications of energy for architecture (architecture’s capacity to do work as a system in an environment) extend beyond mere familiar conditions of human comfort and energy consumption of buildings as objects. A building, in reality, is a vortex of larger material and energy flows.

As such, buildings are anything but sustainable. In actuality, they are dependent on environments of large-scale, nested material and energy systems that far exceed the boundary of a building. In terms of energy, buildings must be placed in this larger context of matter and energy flux. Any architect interested in the concept of homeorhetic sustainability must have enough of a sense of irony to recognize that buildings are fundamentally contingent, not isolated and not self-sustaining. Understanding some of these implications demands that an architectural agenda for energy more directly include fundamental thermodynamic principles.

Currently, however, much of the architectural discourse on energy rests on a familiar and well-developed, albeit incomplete and inadequate, understanding of energy: energy efficiency. As one of the most common terms in the architectural discourse on energy, energy efficiency obfuscates important characterizations and principles of energy systems.

To fulfill the terms of architecture – its necessary excess and Dionysian metabolism– architects need the implications of second law thinking. The far from equilibrium dissipative structure of reality poses different ends for architecture than the equilibrium-based notions of energy balance inherent in net-zero goals.

This text is an extract from Kiel Moe, Convergence:An Architectural Agenda for Energy, Routledge.

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