Could bringing weather indoors improve buildings’ energy efficiency?

  •   16 August 2017

A good building keeps nature’s elements out – the rain, hail, and snow, and occasionally even the sun.

But are we doing such a good job of keeping the weather out, that we deprive ourselves of the many benefits of out-of-doors exposure? After all, research has shown that connection with nature and the outdoors can lead to lower stress levels, and higher levels of productivity.

This is a serious question worth considering, says Kevin Nute, professor of Architecture at the University of Oregon. In a recent article, Nute discusses what the next steps in sustainable interior design should – and could – look like.

Considering Australians spend 90 percent or more of their time indoors, Australian architects should be paying attention to the conversation. Moreso, they are vital to finding a solution.

Some local practices have already found a successful answer. For example, The New Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne was designed by Billard Leece Partnership and Bates Smart to draw upon the therapeutic benefits of nature. Textures, forms, patination and colours from the site’s surrounding Royal Park were highlighted indoors, and the majority of patient rooms have views of the park. These were not superfluous strategies, either. These design decisions were backed by solid, evidence-based research.



New Royal Children’s Hospital. Image: John Gollings


There is a name for this architectural theory: biophilic design. Biophilia suggests that humans naturally seek out connections with the natural environment and other forms of life. In architecture, sustainable design strategies connect building occupants to nature.

Office and commercial designers also acknowledge the importance of bringing the outdoors in to workspaces. Most – if not all – architects will acknowledge that natural daylight, ventilation and green space are elements that improve productivity and reduce the likelihood of sick days amongst employees. For instance, the University of Queensland’s School of Psychology – working with researchers from the Universities of Cardiff, Exeter and Groningen – found that productivity and perceptions of air quality, concentration and workplace satisfaction in two large commercial firms in the UK and the Netherlands were improved in “green” landscaped offices, compared to “lean” workplaces.



Woods Bagot incorporated biophilia into their design of 700 Bourke Street, Melbourne. Image: Trevor Mein


However, Nute has introduced another way of bringing the outdoors in: by incorporating weather animations.

“Think of rippling sunlight reflecting from water onto the underside of a boat, or the dappled shadows from foliage swaying in a breeze,” he explained in an article for The Conversation.



Dancing sunlight patterns reflected onto an interior ceiling from a wind-disturbed external water surface. Image: Kevin Nute


In his e-book, ‘Vital: Using the Weather to Bring Buildings and Sustainability to Life’, Nute notes that there are ways to make the movement of sunlight, shadows, and water obvious in indoor spaces. When these natural movements were brought indoors, they were found to reduce heart rates, and were less distracting than other artificially generated movement.

“Early results suggest that seeing live natural movement of this kind in an indoor space may be more beneficial than viewing outdoor nature through a window. Not only could [this] help to keep us calm, [it could] also improve our attention,” he says.

“These findings are consistent with the Attention Restoration Theory (PDF) proposed by University of Michigan psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan. Among other [strategies], their work suggests that familiar natural movement patterns of this kind have the capacity to keep us alert without being distracting.”



But how can weather animations make a real impact on the hard sustainability credentials of a building?

According to Nute, many green buildings fail to be as energy-efficient as they were built to be. At the end of the day, how a building is used matters as much as how it was designed.

“Many key features of green buildings – such as energy and water conservation, for example – are not immediately noticeable. [As] a result, these simple but important practices are significantly underused,” he says.

“Our work suggests that bringing the movements of sunlight, wind and rain indoors could make passive energy-saving features in buildings more obvious to the people who order and occupy them, and so greatly increase their usage.”

Nute uses the example of light shelves, devices that are commonly retrofitted to the windows of existing buildings to reflect daylight deeper into an interior. By adding a shallow layer of water to the top of light shelves, sunlight patterns will be projected on to the indoor ceilings when the water is disturbed by wind.



A water light shelf reflecting wind-animated sunlight onto an interior ceiling; the arrow on the right represents air movement. Kevin Nute



Water light shelves being tested on a dental clinic waiting room in Eugene, Oregon. Kevin Nute


Together with former University of Oregon Masters student, Aaron Weiss, Nute found that the added water did not reduce the amount of light the shelves transmitted – but it did make the shelves more visible to people using the space.

“We found the same was true of a range of other key passive energy-saving techniques, including solar heating, shading and natural ventilation,” he writes.

“Adding sun, wind or rain-generated movement did not reduce their environmental performance, and in many cases it revealed their operation to those using the building.”

With lighting, heating and cooling accounting for almost 40 percent of energy consumption in buildings, could weather animation be the next big step in improving the energy efficiency of buildings? More research will need to be done, but Nute seems to be on the right track.

More information on Nute’s work can be found here.


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