Tag Archives: performance beauty

Split Systems

Now, when energy is either scarce or expensive, it’s worth remembering that air conditioning accounts for one fifth of all electricity used by buildings. It’s also worth remembering that air conditioning really only means heating air or cooling air because, if you want your air filtered, purified, humidified or dehumidified, then what you need is an AHU – an air handling unit. Air conditioners come in all shapes and sizes but the first experience of domestic air conditioning for many people last century was an evaporative air cooler.

It was possible to build them into a hole in a wall but it was also was common to see them fitted into part of a window opening. Evaporative air coolers still exist and, for example, you can still see them in many places such as the poorer or more traditional areas of Dubai.

In apartments more upmarket they’ll be concealed in louvred enclosures on the underside of the balcony above. This enclosures are sometimes part of the external design but never so much as to be a distinct design element. In this next image, they’re the wood-coloured enclosures along the the balcony ceilings.

You’re also likely to see evaporative air coolers in places such as the tropics or the Middle East where heating isn’t typically requied. Or in cities such as New York where cooling is occasionally required even if heating is traditionally provided separately. Even so, split system air conditioning is still the preferred choice for summer-only use in places such as central Russia (upper left), Damascus (upper right) and Moscow (lower).

Split system reverse cycle air conditioners are also the preferred choice in the temperate climates that requires only moderate and occasional heating and cooling. Passive heating and cooling and for lowering the energy requirements of buildings are all good things and, if these measures are implemented along with a sensible degree of usage restraint, then split system air conditioners aren’t such a bad option.

The first mini-split systems were sold in 1954–1968 by Mitsubishi Electric and Toshiba in Japan, where its development was motivated by the small size of homes. Multi-zone ductless systems were invented by Daikin in 1973, and variable refrigerant flow systems (which can be thought of as larger multi-split systems) were also invented by Daikin in 1982. Both were first sold in Japan. Variable refrigerant flow systems when compared with central plant cooling from an air handler, eliminate the need for large cool air ducts, air handlers, and chillers; instead cool refrigerant is transported through much smaller pipes to the indoor units in the spaces to be conditioned, thus allowing for less space above dropped ceilings and a lower structural impact, while also allowing for more individual and independent temperature control of spaces, and the outdoor and indoor units can be spread across the building.

  • Split-system reverse-cycle air conditioners don’t occupy window space.
  • They’re relatively inexpensive to purchase.
  • They’re simple to install and can be retroactively fitted.
  • They can provide heating as well as cooling.

Split system air conditioners aren’t as energy-efficient as chilled and ducted systems, but their low overheads make them ideal for reducing the initial cost of new builds, and for existing owners wanting a temperature-controlled environment at low cost. In this next photograph, the building on the left is a hotel that’s been retrofitted with ducted air conditioning. The identical building on the right is an office building that relies upon split systems. Its exterior isn’t as pretty but this building is more likely to have the original interiors still intact. Both buildings most likely had window mounted evaporative air coolers until the 1980s.

  • The outdoor and inner units can be spread across the building.

Hmm. The condensers of split system air conditioning systems are installed on the outside of buildings and are generally regarded as either ugly or a necessary evil because they’re additions to existing structures and (thus) outside any aesthetic “wholeness”. Buildings aren’t generally designed with the locations of split system condensers in mind. Apartment balconies are the most unobtrusive and convenient place to put the condenser but there is the obvious disadvantage of them taking up balcony space. Another is that condenser noise is easily transmitted through the balcony doors. There’s not much that can be done about that other than to install them above or outside the balcony. This is fine if there is one but, if not, the most likely location is on the wall next to or below a window, as in the example above.

These next two examples have the condensers placed in surrounds of a material vaguely the same colour as the masonry. These enclosures seem to be a readily accepted compromise – the status quo – the state-of-the art, as it were. The surrounds don’t make the condensers invisible but are regarded as an improvement aesthetically. Condensers are still installed where it is easiest. The surrounds are sometimes given a degree of design input but they invariably remain afterthoughts separate from the building’s design. This is understandable because the charm of split system air conditioners is that they can be installed without any thought before construction or after.

The building is 1924 Normandie Apartments [or the Wukang Building] by Shanghai architect Lazlo Hudec.

These next three examples don’t disguise the condensers but instead draw attention to them by geometrically linking their positions to the facade design. It’s a different way of architecturalizing them. For me the third example is the most successful but ornament these condensers are not.

The next level of bringing condensers into the design of the building involves creating places for them that aren’t balconies but purpose-built shelves. The shelves in this next example could still be read as balconies and, as above, the controlling geometry is an architectural one.

It’s the same with this next example but the condenser surrounds are no longer balconies. It reminds me of that old adage “If you can’t avoid something then make a feature out of it!” That stock photography exists for these geometrically controlled condensers suggests they’re not as inconspicuous as their designers imagine.

Many Chinese multi-storey residential buildings have condenser shelves but, as the spurious condensers in these next photographs show, there’s no obligation to use them.

More recent apartment buildings are more likely to have partially screened shallow shelves. These screens can’t fully screen the condensers for that would reduce their efficiency. Instead, token screens indicate the condensers aren’t meant to be seen. In a way I get it.

Some apartment buildings have their condenser shelves recessed and this seems like a good compromise if you have a floor plate with deep-set rooms requiring windows.

In this next example, condensers of the same size and type are distributed across a facade of a different colour. It looks like there are rules for the installation height and position on the outside of a balcony. This method attempts to regulate all the visual attributes (Colour, Pattern, Shape, Position, Alignment and Size) of the compressors while accepting an uneven distribution across the facade. It’s not bad. The irregularity becomes an incidental feature.

This next example (from Hong Kong) is also a good compromise. The condensers are exposed in an orderly array on what’s obviously the rear of the building. There’s a controlling geometry but not an architectural one. They’re in full view yet where they are tells you they’re not intended to be looked at. Arrangements such as this are only possible if there’s a sole management entity. I imagine this building is a hotel.

Some buildings luck out with deep window reveals or, in the case of this next building, a cornice! The condensers have been randomly bought and installed in the easiest possible location – although it’s fortunate that the 1st (2nd) floor is double-height. The success of this method lies in the primary aesthetic function of the reveal/cornice not being to disguise the condensers. The condensers are given a physical place but denied a conceptual one as far as the aesthetics of the facade are concerned. Unlike the example above, the condenser shelf doesn’t look like a condenser shelf. Despite having a secondary practical function, the architectural device stays firmly architectural and overridingly aesthetic. This is probably as good as it gets and moreover, as good as it needs to be.

• • • 

Chinese Simple Made

The Chinese language is the world’s only language that doesn’t have an alphabet. Each of its 3,000 essential characters has a pronunciation, intonation, meaning and writing stroke order that must be learned and remembered. It’s a lot. So I’ve used the English alphabet to organize some examples of Chinese fit-for-purpose and make it easier to get a feel for the basics.

This post has about one fifth of the usual amount of words but it took about the same time as it wasn’t always easy to identify examples of fit-for-purpose and then find a letter that fitted. I had to bend the rules for Q and X as I couldn’t find any fit-for-purpose queens, quail, x-rays or xylophones.

A is for ASHTRAY.

B is for BROOM.

B is for BLADELESS plastic wrap.

B is for BRIDGE.


D is for DUSTPAN.

D is for DOORSTOP.



F is also for FENCE.


H is for HAT.

I is for IVY.



L is for LADDER.



O is for OCR.


P is also for PATH.

Q is for QI [“chi” = chi]


S is for STENCIL.

S is for SECURITY.

S is for SPOTS TO SIT.


T is for TRASH BINS.





NB: The long handles radial to the axle make this wheelbarrow very easy to tip and unload.

X is for XĪGUÀ [“shii-gwa” = watermelon].

Y is for YELLOW is for domestic gas supply.


All photographs apart from the three I used to illustrate Economical and Efficient Energy usage, and the one above, I have taken myself. However, I have walked across this stepping stone bridge in order to see the timber bridge in the distance. It’s one of Taishun’s many covered bridges, the structure of which relies on the weight of the interlocking timbers and is made without nails, bolts or any other kind of metal connector.

• • • 

Lo-Res Architecture

You know how it is when you rearrange bookshelves. You pick up something and open it and before you know it, the morning is gone. The other day, I picked up Issue #46 of Log magazine from 2019. I remember skimming through it and the following Issue #47 about carbon form. I thought I’d revisit these issues later but, a few months later, the world was Covid, teaching was online and I was packing up my things to send to China. I did put some thoughts into a post at the time, and I do remember wondering if I was object oriented or indifferent and, in the end, decided I was both, mostly on the basis of the project I’d set my class in Fall 2019 [c.f. Carbon Offset].

I’ve nothing against a well-made and functioning green roof but putting plants on buildings is generally a stupid idea although some ways of doing it are more stupid than others. Still, the idea of trees on buildings was still very much in the air in 2019 and education is supposed to be about the ways of the world for better or worse.

The same article also introduced the concept of lo-res architecture but I didn’t spend too much time worrying about it as I’m confident I’m at the lo-res end of that spectrum. I really do believe that using simple means to do many or complex things well is superior to using many or complex things to do one simple thing badly.

The idea of sending self-assembling autonomous robots to Mars to extract water from rocks and make mud bricks is a good example of what I’m against. It’s a niche position. It may be better to send people to Mars to crush rocks to extract water to make mud bricks. A better idea might be to have people here on Earth use our water to make mud bricks we can then rocket to Mars so the robots can get on with building houses there. But let’s not talk about carbon form just yet.

I’m generally as suspicious of claims made for new architectures or technologies as I am of the ingenuousness of those who make them. A genuine lo-res architecture shouldn’t require 2,000 words of high-res language to be understood. Anyway, the next article made me wonder if I was neo-pomo, post-pomo, postmodern revivalist or just plain postmodernist. Further in, I briefly wondered if I was a Stanley Tigermanist using shallow means for deep ends whether intentionally or not. I think not. No.

I thought I knew a bit about the concept of embodied carbon as I could never look at exuberant structure without thinking of the amount of steel that went into its various contortions. My lo-res apartment building at least wore some of its carbon unembodied on the outside but Issue #47, with its awesome cover photo of an orbital interchange next to a shopping mall in Doha, stopped me feeling good about that.

We know it’s possible to put plants on buildings but we also suspect the carbon cost in getting them there and keeping them there will probably be greater than any carbon gain from having them there. What we’re left with are some fleeting microclimate and biodiversity advantages but, since plants on buildings are a way of making buildings more pleasing for us to look at, its really just a smug kind of stealth ornament. It’s using carbon-based life forms as decoration.

But we’re carbon based life forms as well so we can’t hate carbon too much. The problem is our excessive combustion of fossil fuels laid down in the Carboniferous Period about 350~300 million years ago.

Carbon form includes roads and all buildings such as shopping malls and apartment buildings as well as detached houses designed to be accessed by vehicles. Shopping malls are embedded in an entire economy of carbon to fill them with goods. Everyday when I used to drive to university – from Dubai, of all places – I passed by a LEED Silver shopping mall.

No building rating system I know of offers any points for whether a particular building is necessary or not. The question of whether a building’s use of resources is justified IN PLANETARY TERMS is never asked.

Carbon form includes airports, of course.

Regarding Phase I of Qatar’s Hamad International Airport, Rem Koolhaas commented in 2013, “We are delighted and honored to participate in the exciting growth of Doha, in a project that is perhaps the first serious effort anywhere in the world to interface between an international airport and the city it serves.” Umm. Tokyo’s Haneda has been a conveniently located international airport since 1961 but hats off to OMA’s* PR for recasting circumstance as inspired. Next time I want to build an airport I’ll start by creating a site next to my city.

This report notes that “the development of the New Doha International Airport (NDIA) in Qatar requires the reclamation of a large area that was previously utilised for the deposition of waste. Between the 1950’s and 1990, approximately 6.5 million cubic meters* of waste was disposed to the NDIA site. As part of the NDIA project, this waste would be relocated to an engineered landfill approximately 40 km away, close to the town of Mesaieed.”
* somewhat disappointingly, this volume is equal to only 6.5 Empire State Buildings.

Noises were made about Phase II being LEED Silver. It will have a 10,000mindoor tropical garden, 268mwater feature, 11,720mof landscaped retail and dining space, other leisure attractions and facilities … [ref.] I’m sure it will. “But good luck OMA – if anyone can do it, it’s you!”

Starchitects validate the carbon economy and are a symbiotic part of it whether or not they design airports. But most do. All other architects are also implicated since carbon form includes all buildings that can’t exist or function without the significant input of energy from fossil fuels. If a building depends on steel, concrete, air conditioning, artificial illumination, mechanical ventilation and elevators, then it’s carbon form.

Even if all new buildings were to be built to Passivhaus standards and all existing buildings were to be magically retrofitted to Passivhaus standards, we’re still not going to make it by 2050. It’s a bit depressing so let’s not go there. 2050 will still come to us.

The carbon economy includes everything to do with combustion engines so we’ve been heading down this particular path since the Industrial Revolution. A revisionist history of architecture could begin by tracking what happened circa 1965 with Postmodernism and then work back to post-WWI with The International Style and then back to the 1920s and Modernism and post-WWI. However, to propose solving our current problems by “raising awareness” this way is about as immediate a solution as colonizing Mars. There’s also the danger that any talk not focussed on actioning definite proposals will simply be assimilated back into the carbon economy as academic churn or media churn, much like what happened with sustainability. While purporting to be a solution, Mars-talk quickly fulfilled its true function of trivializing the appetite for low-tech solutions in favour of solutions necessitating yet more industry and technology.

Mud brick seems like a good idea for places where rain or floods won’t destroy it. Rammed earth walls seem good for the same reason. Straw bales are inexpensive. Timber is also relatively inexpensive but we’d need to grow more of the right kinds. Unless we want to create more problems for ourselves, we’d have to control our preference for hardwoods. Nader Khalili [c.f. Architecture Misfit #12: Nader Khalili] developed an ingenious construction system using sandbags secured with barbed wire. This all seems to indicate that buildings with thick walls and short spans are a solution for the future, even though people in the Middle East worked this out millennia ago. The Yemeni did for eight-storey buildings, still standing five hundred years on.

Hassan Fathy [c.f. Architecture Misfit #8: Hassan Fathy] championed mud-brick buildings, most famously in his designs for the new city of New Gourna.

His 1989 obituary in the AP News Archive concluded by saying “he struggled without success to convince Egyptian peasants that mud brick, a traditional building material in Egypt, is preferable to concrete” and this is the problem. A carbon economy is always going to encourage the mindset that known low-cost solutions that work, are inferior to “modern” ones that won’t work as well.

“Just as good as a bought one!” my Sheffield-born mother used to say when she finished knitting a sweater.

The Gardened City

The French left Shanghai with the former French Concession streets lined with plane trees. Many more trees were planted across the city in the 1950s and they continue to provide shade and coolth today. Streets like the one below are attractive and also very welcome on hot days.

We now know that the bark and leaves of plane trees can trap airborne pollutants and so many Shanghai roads now inadvertently have a degree of pollutant removal at source. None of the scenes below is exceptional but Shanghai has many many scenes likes these and this is exceptional.

In this next photo is a wide sidewalk with two rows of plane trees and a gathering of rental bicycles.

Further to the left is a new and additional belt of trees and planting called Shanghai Greenway. This section was maybe 15 metres wide but the greenway totals about 112 kilometers in length and links several parks. This section had the distinctive smell of conifers.

Shanghai was blessed with trees anyway but this greenway is a recent addition. New residential developments are planned around existing trees and supplemented with others. The newly planted street trees at the entrance to this housing development are going to have yet more plants at their bases. This is a private developer going that little bit further to make a difference.

The same happens with new retail developments. Trees might be seen as part of the charm of Old Shanghai but they’re a significant part of the charm of the new.

It seems you can’t have too many plants in a city. The sidewalk in this next photo has a row of plane trees, a line of kerbside planters and three lines of stepped planters on the other. This shouldn’t seem strange but it is. There’s some sort of policy at work and it seems to involve growing plants on any piece of land not built on, driven on or walked on.

If you wanted to discourage people from jaywalking – not that people do – then this would be a good way to do so. It’s an opportunity for more plants – hibiscus, in this case.

Back on the sidewalk, there’s no need to choose between using land for plants or for bicycle and scooter parking.

It seems that any urban space that can be cultivated will be cultivated. Durable and low-maintenance hard landscaping isn’t preferred. This next is a green roof on some underground ventilator. It could easily have been some other kind of roof but it’s not. It’s reducing the urban heat-island effect and the rate of stormwater runoff but we can also appreciate how it looks.

This construction site hoarding could easily have been a sheet metal wall or even a masonry wall topped with ridge tiles but it’s a living wall. The plants are real.

Otherwise unused and unfriendly spaces beneath bridge approach roads are opportunities for parks and gardens. The photo on the left below is of a park and monument to the workers who built the nearby Nanpu and Yangpu Bridges. It’s a handsome monument.

This footbridge has been designed to have containers of plants on each side, dwarf bougainvillea in this case.

If I were caught in traffic on the Yan-An Elevated I might appreciate the planters of dwarf bougainvillea lining each side of it, as they do many other sections of elevated road. It’s prettiness where you least expect it and potted bougainvillea are not plane trees growing in the ground but, theoretically at least, this is another example of pollution control at source. Narrow tubes looping between the planters are probably the reticulation system.

Note the trolley busses.

Planters only seem to be used only when there’s no alternative. The footpath outside this public toilet can’t be compromised, and the ferry is a ferry.

The spaces below elevated motorways are typically difficult to love but it doesn’t take much coaxing to get ivy to grow up the supports and to even creep along the underside in some places. It’s going to be wonderful, more effective than an upside-down High Line, more surreal than a Stefano Boeri or a Heatherwick, and for less cost, maintenance and liability.

It’s said “Doctors bury their mistakes – architects cover theirs with ivy” but using ivy to cover something that people don’t generally like the look of anyway must surely make it better than it was before, even if only visually – which it’s not. I don’t understand why all cities aren’t doing this instead of letting billionaires and architects distract us with visions of futures less immediate. This should be our Plan A.

• • •

Urban gardening is extremely good value for money and especially so if the climate is plant-friendly.

Shanghai’s is warm-temperate with precipitation all year round and an average minimum above freezing. But just because things can grow doesn’t mean people will want to plant things everywhere and take pleasure in watching them grow. The 2010 Shanghai Expo no doubt prompted movements to prettify the city in readiness and this may have set this greening process in motion. “The rate of increase of [Shanghai’s] surface urban heat island (SUHI) effect has slowed due to reasonable urban planning and relevant green policies since the 2010 Expo”. If there’s some sort of policy at work, then I’m amazed how unforced it all looks, probably because it resonates with a cultural preference anyway.

It’s more apparent in the smaller cities but there is a Chinese tendency to not leave any patch of land uncultivated.

Vegetables aren’t about to be grown on the street verges in China’s largest city but its surfaces can still be cultivated to provide other types of nourishment. If I had to think of what links all this, I’d say it’s an appreciation of an everyday symbiotic relationship with plants, and not just in Shanghai. This electrical substation is in Wenzhou at that mall I keep mentioning. The grass is real.

The construction site hoarding as living wall was a spectacular exception but, back home now, the default construction site hoarding is a masonry wall, painted white and capped with brick intended to resemble a traditional wall. It took me a while to realize they were construction hoardings.

More short-term hoardings for roadworks are often covered in some Astroturf equivalent. I’ve seen others with images of grass but I’ve also seen them with images of fake grass. On the surface, an image of fake grass is no better or worse than an image of real grass but it does encourage us to see them as equivalent, continuing the postmodern project for representations of things to substitute for the things themselves.

And on it goes. We now call mountain-shaped buildings mountains and call vegetated buildings forests. I suspect the real reason gardening the city is not being promoted more in Western economies is not because it costs money and labour but because it’s free for the public. The trend in Western societies these past few decades has been for anything free to become paid and for anything public to cost more. So instead of more plants in our cities we have projects like Boeri’s Vertical Forest (2014) in Milan which is PRIVATELY-OWNED NATURE attached to privately-owned apartments even if the public can still see it. This is not the case for Boeri’s Mars proposal which would be CORPORATE-OWNED NATURE.

It would also an example of SEQUESTERED NATURE for all the benefits of growing plants are kept inside the enclosure for the people wth a reason [$] for being there. In that sense it’s no different from BIG and Heatherwick’s proposal of a enclosed garden environment for Google Headquarters.

Foster+Partners Apple Headquarters (2017) and Gehry’s (2015) Facebook Headquarters are also sequestered nature but at least their plants were on the outside where people unable to see them can theoretically benefit from a marginally improved air quality and urban heat island effect.

Ultimately, there is PAY-PER-VIEW NATURE which is gardens accessible to the public at a price. Heatherwick’s London Garden Bridge proposal was going to be this. The “sky garden” at the top of Rafael Viñoly’s 20 Fenchurch Street (2014) is free to the public until 6:00pm but after then accessible only to paying customers of the restaurants. So far, Heatherwick’s Little Island (2021) in NYC remains free of charge.

MVRDV have experience with PSEUDO-NATURE and PRIVATELY-OWNED NATURE but their London Mound (2021) is unashamed PAY-PER-VIEW NATURE.

London Mound is a temporary artificial mountain built to monetize a patch of grass and paving at London’s Marble Arch. Not many people have anything nice to say about it. Organizers claim it’s because it was opened too early, presumably in an attempt to claw back the £6,000,000+ construction cost. Its purpose is to increase footfall past shops on London Oxford Street. MVDRV’s PR says the project has a serious message. It does. Once people begin to prefer representations of Nature over Nature itself, then it’s only a small step towards making them pay for it. The bigger game is to make real Nature redundant so nobody cares what happens to it.

All these dysfunctional natures work to lessen our attachment to Nature, so I’m not surprised nobody’s rushing to emulate Shanghai’s example of a simple, inexpensive and free-to-the-public approach to more plants in the city. I will surely visit Heatherwick’s mountain-esque “1,000 Trees” at Shanghai’s M50 arts space. Representing Nature was a bad idea but not as bad as objectifying representations of it on pedestals and disengaging plants from the ground.


For the bigger items you’re going to have to talk to your municipality. For a more immediate result you could always scatter some seeds along some public path or road. Nature will do the rest.