What does an online Building Design course teach me?

I recently took an online course taught by the University of Bath in the U.K. on Modern Building Design. It was designed perfectly in balancing the conceptual and technical aspects of building design.

I took some notes about some of the inspiring insights from the faculties. Please note I use the metric system in this article.


Dr. Ricardo Codinhoto has a very deep understanding of BIM (Building Information Modeling). He thinks the core of BIM is information. Furthermore, you could think about the relationship between building information modeling and big data.

He used an analogy that inspires me: the fx Σ of the multiple BIM projects make a Smart City. This is exactly what’s happening in New York City. The City is aggregating data from buildings to improve policies towards the 80×50 target.

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Photo: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/modern-building-design/

Energy Modeling

We typically model with weather data based on 20-years in the UK. This course reminds students to take into account the future climate change. Buildings last for at least 50 years, hence using historical data isn’t sufficient. It is not only about the temperature, but severe rainfall/droughts and wind shear.

Modeling is not only about the heat flows, but also the daylighting, glare, and comfort which are often underrated.

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Photo: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/modern-building-design/

Sustainable building materials: Concrete

Cement production accounts for about 6-8% of the total CO2 emission every year. Cement is used as a binding material for concrete. However, 60% of the concrete serves absolutely no structural purpose. In a high-rise, we use the same amount of concrete for all concrete slabs. Of course, through common sense that some parts of the slabs will be heavily stressed, and some parts will be very lightly stressed. This means we waste the concrete and have the same amount of carbon emissions associated with the concrete structure.

Lime has similar functions to the use of cement in concrete. But it has a lower environmental impact due to the low temperature required for the production. Lime also reabsorbs part of the CO2 emitted during the production.

Dr. Giovani Pesce introduced a new material called nano-lime. As the name implies, nano-lime is made of tiny crystals of lime suspended in alcohol. Small particles floating in alcohol makes nano-lime look like milk.  Nano-lime has the similar binding functions.  Small crystals react quickly compared to big crystals. It substantially saves the time and money on site work.

Professor Tim Ibell challenged students to think about the way we use concrete in a building. Do we put concrete only at where we need? Concrete is a fluid, but why do we place it in a rectangle shape? We can pour concrete into a fabric/mould to make concrete beams, columns, or various shapes. This process also enhances the durability and prevents waste. The mould can be designed by software to provide the shape we want.

Photo: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/modern-building-design/

Water Sensitive Design (WSD)

Because of the climate change, we see more floods. WSD becomes important to be incorporated into the design. Several strategies:

  1. Spatial and tectonic design – living with water. Think about what to be put at the ground floor? How to seal or channel water flow?
  2. Use robust materials. Non-permeable is Dr. Kemi Adeyeye suggested.
  3. Effective landscaping and drainage infrastructure. For example, porous bricks, lawns, hedges, and other forms of vegetation
  4. Eco-sensitive infrastructure.

Health and well-being

It is tricky that wellness is not something can be measured independently. It is very personal and also relates to the built environment. Human beings have ups and downs. External factors sometimes can push our performance down. The built environment is one of them. The idea is to design better to reduce the negative impact. Variables that affect well-being include IEQ (for example, CO2 level, color, daylight, etc.)

Poor building design

Professor David Coley raised his concerns on building design. Something obvious is overheating/overcooling, improper heating/cooling systems, lack of BAS. In 1980, the mean internal wintertime temperature in UK houses was 14°C (whole-house mean). Now it is 20°C+. In Sweden, it is 22°C. More artificial lights and glasses are put into the newly constructed buildings. Things often underestimated are the shape of the buildings. Complex shaped buildings loss more energy (thermal bridging, right?).  Another interesting point is about the IT system. Newer buildings have more complicated IT system which generates extra heat. But the energy efficiency of the IT system is very unlikely a priority in its selection.

Professor Coley further asked, “Why do we heat the buildings?” The answer seems simple enough to be “keep us warm”. Our body temperature is 37°C, but we typically heat the room to 22°C. Heat flows from our body to the room. What we do is insulating the walls. Did we forget a more effective strategy of clothing?

Photo: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/modern-building-design/ and https://polarbearsinternational.org/

The next question will naturally be “why do we cool the buildings?” Because of the overglazing, the equipment, the lights, the IT equipment, and the people in the building. How about ventilation? Why don’t we open the windows? He kept asking many interesting questions. One of them was do we need labels, and why do we put certifications in the lobby? To encourage changes? We love plaques, right? Do you like Fair Trade coffee? But you can picture the Fair Trade coffee is sold in “a highly-glazed, poorly-insulated building with the lights on. How’s that going to help an Ethiopian coffee grower as the planet warms?”


Photo: https://www.energystar.gov/sites/default/files/assets/images/glass_etched_detail_large.jpg

Integration between academia and the industry

Professor Steve Lo pointed out the biggest challenge of the disconnection in between students and the industry. Another challenge is how to teach holistic/system thinking. What most schools teach is silo-based approach while the real design process which, in turn, is based on the integration of information. “Students need to learn how to defend their design solutions, while supported by fundamental building physics principles, yet within the constraints of existing regulations, benchmarks and targets.”

I agree they are taught separately in most schools. When I talk to the fellow classmates from my program, I feel such a delight because everyone understands to think from different angles, even it is hard for us to figure out the best solution easily. But we tempt to solve the problems and mitigate the negative impact, rather creating new problems because of the trade-offs.

I would like to use a quote from the class as a conclusion: We do need innovation because innovation is what moves us forward. But innovation doesn’t necessarily mean new, innovation can also mean modernization, optimization, and improvement.

Cover photo: http://www.designboom.com/architecture/bullitt-center-the-worlds-most-sustainable-commercial-building-under-construction/


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