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Passive Design : Bioclimatic Architecture



Passive design today represents one of the most effective responses to sustainability challenges in the building sector. Passive design focuses on using natural conditions to maintain a comfortable indoor environment without excessively relying on mechanical systems. In contrast, active design uses technologies and mechanical systems to control the indoor environment through advanced heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems (HVAC) and other forms of technology. By leveraging bioclimatic architectural strategies, passive design minimizes the environmental impact of buildings while naturally providing optimal comfort to its occupants. According to a study by the Passive House Institute, buildings with passive design can consume up to 75% less energy than standard new constructions.

This blog explores different passive design techniques and strategies, including passive solar design, integration of natural ventilation, the importance of thermal mass and insulation, and finally landscaping and outdoor spaces.


Passive Solar Design

Passive solar design is a central strategy of bioclimatic architecture, crucial for the energy efficiency of passive buildings. This method leverages the building's orientation, window layout, building materials, and overall arrangement to optimize the use of solar energy for heating and lighting while limiting overheating during warm periods. According to a study by the U.S. Department of Energy, passive solar design can reduce heating costs by 40 to 90%, depending on implementation and climatic region.


Optimization of Orientation

The orientation of the building is crucial for maximizing sunlight in winter and minimizing it in summer. Typically, main glass surfaces are oriented south in the northern hemisphere (and north in the southern hemisphere) to effectively capture sunlight. In summer, features such as roof overhangs, sunshades, or strategically placed trees provide shade, reducing the need for air conditioning and improving thermal comfort.


Design and Layout

Interior design and layout also play a key role in passive solar design. Space arrangement should promote the entry of natural light, thereby reducing reliance on artificial lighting. The integration of adjustable sunshades and smart blinds can increase occupant comfort and reduce heat peaks. If you want to learn more about how to integrate natural lighting in buildings you can read our article here.


Choice of Materials

High-density materials with thermal capacity help maintain indoor temperatures by absorbing sunlight's calories and releasing them over time, a phenomenon known as thermal lag. The choice of high-performance glazing, such as low-emissivity double glazing, is essential for insulation but also for optimizing light gains. These glazings are designed to reflect infrared radiation, which helps keep heat inside in winter and outside in summer. These solutions are crucial for thermal comfort of users and the reduction of heating and cooling needs, leading to lower operational costs.


Natural Ventilation

Natural ventilation is a crucial aspect of passive design, allowing for effective temperature regulation and air quality improvement without overly depending on mechanical systems. This system relies on temperature and pressure differences between the inside and outside of the building to create natural air movement. Besides the environmental benefits from reduced energy use for heating and cooling, natural ventilation also offers increased comfort for occupants and a notable reduction in long-term energy costs. According to Briar Energy, a study showed that user satisfaction reached 77% with natural ventilation, compared to 50% with mechanical ventilation only. [https://briaryenergy.co.uk/knowledge-bank/natural-ventilation/ ]


Topography and Orientation

The configuration and orientation of the site play a predominant role in the effectiveness of natural ventilation. Careful design that considers local topography and building orientation can maximize the use of prevailing winds and air currents, thus enhancing the efficiency of the ventilation system. It is crucial to perform, for example, wind simulations (CFD analysis) to identify air flows and develop design strategies to use these air flows to our advantage or to break these flows with landscaping, for instance, to increase building performance.


Design and Openings

Using strategically placed openings, such as windows, doors, and French doors, is essential to create effective air currents. Warm air tends to stagnate at the top and cool air at the bottom, due to air stratification. A smart arrangement of openings allows capturing cool air at the lower level and releasing the accumulated warm air at the upper level, thus exploiting natural convection to efficiently ventilate the building, a phenomenon known as "stack effect." The choice of joinery is important when discussing natural ventilation; using ventilators at the level of the joinery can be a wise choice to optimize air circulation.


Thermal Mass and Insulation

Integrating thermal mass and effective insulation into the building design is crucial for reducing energy consumption and increasing occupant comfort. A well-designed thermal mass can reduce heating needs by storing heat during sunlight hours and releasing it during colder periods. According to a study by the NIA (National Insulation Association), improvements in insulation in existing buildings can lead to energy savings ranging from 10 to 45% and can result in carbon emission reductions over a 50-year period.


Effective Insulation

Choosing high-performance thermal insulation is crucial for reducing heating needs and increasing comfort. Materials must be chosen with high thermal resistance. Thermal resistance depends on the thickness of the insulant as well as its thermal conductivity—the lower a material's thermal conductivity, the greater its insulating capability. According to Ademe, in a dwelling, heat losses come from the roof (25-30%), walls (20-25%), and low floors (7-10%), highlighting the importance of effective insulation to reduce energy needs and operational costs.


Thermal Inertia

Thermal inertia plays a key role in the natural regulation of indoor temperatures. High-density materials store the heat absorbed during the day and release it slowly, which helps stabilize indoor temperatures when outdoor temperatures fluctuate, a phenomenon known as thermal lag. This property not only reduces the use of heating and cooling systems but also improves the overall thermal comfort of the building.


Reduction of Thermal Bridges

Thermal bridges are areas of a building's structure where more significant heat loss occurs due to insufficient insulation or discontinuities in the building envelope. They represent a major challenge in the design of energy-efficient buildings as they can increase the demand for heating and cooling, reduce indoor comfort, and cause condensation. An architectural design that minimizes interruptions in insulation is therefore crucial. This may include aligning insulants between inner and outer walls, using continuous insulating materials across several building components, and minimizing heat-conducting elements that cross through the insulation.

Landscaping and Outdoor Spaces

Landscaping in the context of bioclimatic architecture goes beyond aesthetics to play a significant functional role. This approach aims to exploit the local climate and natural resources to actively reduce the energy consumption of buildings, improve occupant comfort, and sustainably manage water resources. The strategic use of vegetation, for example, is not limited to providing shade and reducing urban heat islands but also participates in creating beneficial microclimates for surrounding buildings. Studies show that well-placed trees can reduce up to 25% of the energy used by a typical household for heating and air conditioning.


Use of Vegetation

The strategic selection and placement of plants are essential. Trees, shrubs, and other plants are used to provide shade, reduce wind speed, and improve thermal insulation around buildings. This strategy is central in passive design with the previously mentioned points. These natural elements are particularly effective in modifying the local microclimate, reducing ambient air temperature through plant transpiration, and protecting buildings from cold or hot winds.


Roofs and Green Walls

Green roofs and living walls play a dual role in building design. They provide additional insulation, reducing the need for air conditioning and heating while managing stormwater. They also contribute to biodiversity and help combat urban heat islands. Green roofs, for example, can reduce the maximum surface temperature of the roof by 25% and help stabilize the temperature with a reduction of about 70% in temperature fluctuation of the roof allowing a reduction in energy needs.


Water Management

The integration of sustainable water management solutions, such as rain gardens and rainwater recovery systems, helps reduce reliance on municipal water supply systems and decreases the impact of runoff on urban infrastructure. These systems can also contribute to the irrigation of plantations without requiring additional water, thus optimizing the use of water resources. Moreover, the choice of vegetation in landscaping is just as important, using native plants familiar with the local climate and xerophyte species (low water need) can significantly reduce irrigation water needs. To learn more about water management in sustainable buildings, consult our dedicated blog post here.


Conclusion

Passive design, with its principles of bioclimatic architecture, represents a major sustainable solution to address current energy and environmental challenges. By integrating techniques such as passive solar design, natural ventilation, optimization of thermal mass and insulation, and landscaping, these buildings not only drastically reduce energy consumption but also provide superior comfort and an improved quality of life for their occupants. Energy savings of up to 75% compared to standard constructions underscore the effectiveness and importance of these strategies in modern architecture.


Interested in integrating bioclimatic design strategies? Contact us!




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