The building as climate modifier

Remains have been found of simple structures constructed from animal skins draped between sticks dating back over 40,000 years, and it is likely these were the first type of shelter constructed by humans.

Simple tents suited a nomadic lifestyle. Lightweight and easy to carry, they could be moved from place to place in harsh environments where it was necessary to keep on the move to stay alive. Where resources were more plentiful, it was possible to settle down and build permanent shelters in the form of huts. In intermediate environments, a whole range of composite structures developed, part tent, part hut, most notably the Yurt, a demountable hut, still in use in places such as Mongolia today.

This combination of a fundamental requirement for shelter, moderated by practicality and resource availability, still drives the design of our buildings today, and can be seen in as varied typologies as the Troglodytic architecture of sculptured hillside landscapes in Morocco, to the Eskimos’ igloos, to Malaysian tree-dwelling, African courtyard houses, and the English thatched cottage.

In each case, the building fabric acts as a climatic modifier, controlling the extent to which conditions are able to transmit between the outside and the inside. This extent of modification depends on a wide range of factors, including; the materials used, their thickness and form, the way the elements fit together and interact, surface conditions, openings and so on.

In cold climates, buildings offer protection against the wind, rain, the cold, snow, and so on. Curved igloo shapes present the minimum surface area for the largest volume.

In hot and dry climates, there is more of a need for heavy mass buildings and shading. Shaded courtyards are common, and openings allow cross-ventilation. Thick adobe walls can be used to retain heat during the day and release it to the interior as temperatures cool at night. See Thermal mass for more information.

More complex features, such as trombe walls, use a combination of thermal mass and glazing to collect and store solar radiation so that it can be used to heat the interior.

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