Urban Heat: From Region to Building

Adaptation to climate change and mitigation of that change necessarily coincide, members of the symposium’s first panel contend. To address both aims successfully, we must intervene on multiple scales. Regional-scale shifts in transportation modes, as Jeffrey Raven, FAIA pointed out with particular reference to New York City’s energy plan, can reduce both greenhouse gas emissions and waste heat; single-building design strategies that increase energy performance have similar effects when replicated. Technological strategies informed by natural models and by detailed rethinking of materials’ energy-managing properties show promise of scaling up from small units (e.g., bricks) to larger systems, Jason Vollen suggested. This potential is amplified when these technologies are
considered alongside behavioral adaptations. BASF’s Amy Patel expanded on this prompt with a discussion of products whose physical properties contribute to the emerging industrial sector of green chemistry. Chris Benedict, focusing chiefly on the building level, examined the fundamental energy inputs and outputs of various building components, drawing the logical connections to Passive House design principles.

To address both climate change adaptation and mitigation successfully, we must intervene on multiple scales.

A comparable rethinking of existing construction practices animated Wolfgang Rieder’s accounts of his company’s efforts to improve on components and practices that were developed under unsustainable assumptions. It is clear that even when faced with a tide of skepticism within an established industry, such as concrete panel design and fabrication, process improvements are possible and necessary. The Global Cool Cities Alliance’s Kurt Shickman reflected on the relationship between economic incentives and aspirations of improvement at the civic scale, offering principles of value to policymakers everywhere who strive to reconcile financial calculations with the physical and biological costs and benefits that different built forms present to communities and ecosystems. Moderator Anna Dyson pointed out a common theme among the panelists’ comments: that “the large majority of urban heat island effects are accruing as a result of the replacement of natural systems or living systems with hard surfaces [and] engineered surfaces.” Dyson acknowledged the corollary that human technological applications may always lag behind nature’s counterparts, but might still usefully harness the efficiency of biological processes that transform both energy and information.

We are inheritors of the late modern tradition of treating a building as a steam engine, or a kind of closed system, and pretending we’re going to
minimize the loss of energy that comes in through fossil fuels, when really…it’s an open system.

The more granular the knowledge that humans can attain about natural operations, the greater our capacity to conserve energy, air, water, and other resources through our cities’ artificial systems – particularly in what Benedict termed “the mushy, gushy, icky stuff on the inside of the building, down in the boiler room and circulating through the building.” Much energy wastage inevitably takes the form of heat, so it follows that minimized waste will help reduce the heat that artificial systems create. Every process from the molecular level to the wider circulations of resources, which Raven described as “regional metabolism,” remains accountable to basic Newtonian conservation of energy. “We are inheritors,” Dyson noted, “of the late modern tradition of treating a building as a steam engine, or a kind of closed system, and pretending we’re going to minimize the loss of energy that comes in through fossil fuels, when really, it’s an open system.”

The "Urban Heat: from Region to Building" panelists in discussion with moderator Anna Dyson.

The “Urban Heat: from Region to Building” panelists in discussion with moderator Anna Dyson.

Click here to read additional insights by Raven, Vollen, Patel, Benedict, Rieder, and Shickman.