sunbather

It’s Not Rocket Science #12: Getting Some Rays

Socrates_teaching

Socrates disapproved of that new craze for writing things down. He thought people who used reed pens and papyrus to write things down no longer made any effort to remember.

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Despite Socrates’ misgivings, Plato did manage to remember a thing or two in The Republic.

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Xenophon was another furtive note-taker. He recalls Socrates describing the perfect house.

  1. oriented towards the south to take in the sun,
  2. an overhang to block the summer but allow it in winter, and
  3. a sloping roof to protect from prevailing cold winds from the north.

SocratesZenophon

“It is pleasant to have one’s house cool in summer and warm in winter, is it not?” and this proposition also having obtained assent, “Now, supposing a house to have a southern aspect, sunshine during winter will steal in under the verandah, but in summer, when the sun traverses a path right over our heads, the roof will afford an agreeable shade, will it not? If, then, such an arrangement is desirable, the southern side of a house should be built higher to catch the rays of the winter sun, and the northern side lower to prevent the cold winds finding ingress; in a word, it is reasonable to suppose that the pleasantest and most beautiful dwelling place will be one in which the owner can at all seasons of the year find the pleasantest retreat, and stow away his goods with the greatest security.”

Thanks to Alex in Copenhagen for sending me that quote and prompting this post on receiving sufficient daylight. Thanks also to Dennis Holloway for the above image plus additional insights as he’s already written the brief history of solar design I thought I was going to. He notes that when Socrates was making the above statements circa 400BC, there was a shortage of firewood in Greece. It seems a human trait to talk about saving energy only when there looks like being less of it around.

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The firewood shortage can’t have ended because Greek houses came to be oriented with their courtyards to the south. As did courtyards in many other times and places.

We may think a sunny courtyard a pleasant place for lunch al fresco but, back then, a sunny courtyard would function better as a place for drying foodstuffs and preserve them as an early form of food security. For shelter however, a courtyard on the south side means less obstruction to low-angle sunlight hitting the windows and walls of the living spaces. The invention of courtyards was a good idea that made things better.

In early 20th century Europe, things weren’t getting better. The commodity with the largest shortage was space. The housing density was so high courtyards became light wells only without much light. (These next few images are from Karel Teige’s The Minimum Dwelling.)

Here’s a new building in Madrid 1930. It has one staircase and one elevator for 1,500 people. Five out of six apartments have no windows other than across those 3m gaps. Spatially, what’s happened is that the floor of the corridors has been partially removed to create lightwells. Grim.

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This next building was also built in 1930. It tries to get the light right, as well as space. This was a constant theme of certain architects in Europe and Russia.

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And not just there, in LA there was Richard Neutra’s Lovell House completed in 1927 just prior to the practical completion of Le Corbusier’s sunlight providing machine in Poissy.  Misfits’ man-on-the-spot in Brussels, Karel Teige, reports on the goings-on at the Third CIAM Conference with the them of “Low-, medium- or high-rise dwellings”.

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(Modernism had barely begun and Walter Gropius was shifting its emphasis away from its core goals of the quantitative provision of space and light and towards his version of “social and psychological” fulfilment. This makes Gropius the first Post Modernist.)

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Richard Neutra moved to America in 1923. Neutral was a man who saw the bigger picture and did not become a refugee like Gropius, a collaborator like Le Corbusier or,  like Mies van der Rohe, both.

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In 1920, three years after joining what was to become the Nazi party, Hitler organised its biggest ever meeting of 2,000 people. Hitler Youth was a reality in 1922, the SS in 1923. Time to leave.

I do like Teige’s summary of the 3rd CIAM and can’t help noticing how true it still is.

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Despite the jostling at the 1930 CIAM, daylight moved higher up the architectural agenda and some architects worked to ensure people had a certain amount of light where they lived. It didn’t take long for them to arrive at building solutions that provided people with sufficient light and space.

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Gropius did do some work on the heights and spacings of buildings but only to make a case for the higher buildings we wanted to design. The consistent sun altitude of 30° meant all his alternatives were equal in terms of sunlight.

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More useful was the work Hannes Meyer did for a trade school in Bernau, near Berlin. This is starting to look familiar.

Meyer Sunlight

In another post I’ve mentioned this next image which seems to be the calculations to go with a  diagram such as the one above. I don’t know of anyone else who was concerned about things like this in 1926, before CIAM and the official architectural agenda.

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Here’s another light-inspired design from the 1920s. This is one of Moisei Ginzburg’s designs for communal housing. It features multiple staircases that function as inclined light wells. Here’s the principle.

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Here’s how it worked.

These inclined light wells direct sunlight to places that would otherwise not receive any. Moreover, the cascading staircases connect everybody to the communal floors in a way that makes everyone feel directly connected all the time. These staircases are doing two important things that elevators can’t. Compared to the earlier Spanish example that partially subtracts  floors yet gives back nothing, this building makes the communal rooms additionally function as corridors and the stairs additionally function as lightwells. This is a good example of a nutritious building that does the shelter thing well. Intelligence was applied to produce new benefits from simple and uncomplicated technologies.

This new recognition of the importance of sunlight in buildings was responsible for regulations to ensure minimum quantities of sunlight depending on the type of building. The goal was to achieve a minimum quantitative standard using a minimum of resources and it was generally successful in the eastern European countries and Russia. Let’s go to Yekaterinburg where, in midwinter, it’s daylight for seven hours 9 til 4.

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Misfits’ man-in-Yekaterinburg, Victor, supplied me with the following information on the Sanytarnye Pravila i Normy (Sanitary Regulations and Norms) issued by the Russian Health Ministry. Here’s some extracts relating to sunlight in apartments. (СанПиН 2.2.1_2.1.1.1076-01)

SanPiN 2.2.1/2.1.1.1076 The following have to be met by at least one room in the apartment.

  • north of 58° N – at least 2.5 hours a day between 22nd of April and 22nd of August
  • 58°N – 48°N – at least 2 hours a day between 22nd of March and 22nd of September
  • south of 48°N – at least 1.5 hours a day between 22nd of February and 22nd of October.

SanPiN 3.1 Insolation requirements must be met by at least 1 room of 1 to 3-room apartments, and at least 2 rooms of 4 or more-room apartments.

SanPiN 3.3 Interrupted insolation is acceptable but if the span of any period of interruption is over 1 hour, the summary insolation must be increased by 0.5 hours.

I like how balconies and overhangs are factored in.

Here’s an article highlighting the current state of those Russian San-Pin regulations. The gist is that such strict control over the quantity of sunlight is no longer needed for the purpose of preventing tuberculosis. The author asks, “Why is it that only one of the rooms should have sunlight, and then only in summer?”  The author notes that quantity of sunlight is no longer a health issue but an issue of quality that does not need to be enforced by health regulations. Even in googletranslish the meaning is clear.

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Insolation has long ceased to be sanitary requirements, becoming a qualitative characteristic property. A qualitative characteristics should not be regulated SanPin and technical regulations, it is not a security setting. In fact, the degree of illumination apartments only affects its price – if it is dark, it is a reason to ask for a big discount on the sale. And normalized insolation in buildings under construction does not make sense: if the developer wants to make due to the higher density, it will inevitably lose in the price of real estate. So it’s just a matter of agreement the seller and buyer, the issue price and quality, there is still a question of honesty of the seller and buyer awareness of what he buys.

This is true, but housing undersupply also tends to make landlords adopt a “take it or leave it” approach, giving potential residents little or no power to negotiate lower prices. Undersupply also results in extreme buildings such as the Spanish example or Kowloon’s walled city (mentioned on ArchDaily in 2013) that was only demolished in 1994. Greg Girard‘s site has some excellent photographs of what architects now know as slum porn.

The market approach however, is generally what we have. The reason why ratings systems such as LEED include standards for building daylighting is to change the way buildings are built yes but also to increase the value of buildings.

  1. It’s not about the people because the standards relating to daylight provision can be satisfied just as easily by making the rooms smaller.
  2. And it’s not about the planet because those standards can be satisfied equally well by expensive means or inexpensive means.

Expensive vanity buildings built for no great purpose seem to regularly achieve LEED Platinum. At first it seems ironic that a building should become more “green” the more money that’s thrown at them but, if the objective of building rating systems is to increase building value, then a high rating accurately indicates a high-value building. It all depends on one’s definition of value.

There’s no incentive to use inexpensive materials and resources or simple and readily available technologies. The danger here is that people might lose the incentive to provide quantitative light through inexpensive means. Why make the effort if the system is against you? Instead, they might choose to satisfy requirements using whatever means are most cost-efficient, despite their cost. People might even stop trying to achieve the quantitative supply of light and instead work towards achieving “qualitative” supply of light because it adds more value. If that happens, we will be heading for another dark age.

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a non-compliant habitable room

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