Assignment 3, part 2 (Design Primer)

Design Primer

Objectives: Use the classical Chalet model to design a primer for homes in the Swiss Alps, with the biggest concern being temperature maintenance. During the harsh winter season in Alpine climates,  methods of sunlight absorption and insulation are very important passive heating strategies

Strategies to be employed by the primer: thermal mass and temperature-conscious materials, orientation of the buildings in relation to topography and the sun, and stilts/ elevated ground plane as a design strategy. These strategies combined in the primer comprise the passive heating strategies that make best use of the environment while maintaining a livable indoor space.

Strategy 1: Putting the house on wooden stilts



In the summertime, stilts allow for the warm air in the valley to convectively flow underneath the house at night, creating a residual warmth from the daytime as well as ventilation. This ventilation prevents rotting on the wood, and the stone disks separating the pillars from the base of the home also help to ease the risk of rotting on the most important structural members. Air flow during the summer creates a comfortable environment during the day and at night, based on the mountain’s climate and wind flows.

During the winter, stilts become even more important. Snow in the alps remains frozen during the winter because of the dry air, and doesn’t tend to melt and re-freeze as it does in more humid climates. Because of this, snow becomes a good insulator for the house during the wintertime. The snow piles up beneath the house, and prevents radiant heat loss from the house’s interior to the frozen ground beneath the snow. In regards to functionality, stilts allow the house to be entered and exited from in the presence of snow.


Strategy 2: Orientation



Orienting the houses southward is very important in relation to the sun, and having one of the roof flanks facing uphill towards the mountain is also very important. Modern passive heating strategies include glass glazing with double-panes and insulation, letting in maximum daylight on the southern side of the building during all times of year. During the summertime, the low-hanging roof gables block direct overhead sunlight that would cause an unpleasant rise in the indoor temperature. The valley-facing side of the house is open to ventilation (convective heat flow from the valley) at night.

During the wintertime, orientation is also important. The glass windows to the south still let in a ton of light, but the low gables don’t block direct overhead sunlight as the sun’s path changes in the colder months. In the winter, the deepset windows on the east and west facing sides of the house will receive even more warmth from the reflected sunlight off of the snow. The frigid night wind from the top of the mountainside is offset by the roof’s orientation, the roofline and snow pile up to create a sort of insulating barrier from the home’s interior.

Strategy 3: Materiality for thermal mass and insulation



During the wintertime, heat retention is the biggest concern in the Alps. Insulation can be achieved by taking advantage of the snow that falls, having the roof’s pitch not quite steep enough to drop off all of the snow that piles up. The dark wooden material of the home itself absorbs sunlight during the day and has low conductivity, meaning that it loses heat slowly to its surrounding environment and retains heat longer through the night than a steel structure would.

During the summer, the temperature in the Alps is nice during the daytime but plummets at night. Having thermal massing to absorb the sun’s heat during the day offsets the uncomfortable cold of the nighttime. The roofs are a dark wooden structure, with giant slate tiles on top. The slate absorbs and retains heat for a long time, radiantly warming the interior of the home by transferring heat throughout the night. The heat obtained from the roof is kept well inside the tight wooden frame of the house at night, and as it slowly warms up during the hottest hours of the day, it serves to keep the home shaded and cool.


Assignment 3, Part One

Vernacular Case Study: Traditional Swiss Alpine Chalet

(Photo credit: Caroline Nilsson)

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The Swiss Chalet uses the environment to its advantage in order to keep its inside environment comfortable, especially in the wintertime. The slate roof serves as a thermal mass to absorb sunlight during the day and retain heat through the night, and the dark wooden structure absorbs sunlight, radiant warmth from the roof, and has low conductivity (which is good for maintaining thermal environments). The big roof overhangs block direct summer sunlight from the deep-set windows, but reflected light from the snow as well as early morning sunlight can come through in the winter. During the spring, this overhang serves to protect the house and the wooden frame from the wet, melting snow from the roof. The orientation of these chalets face south, with roof planes towards the east and west (to absorb optimum sunlight for as many hours as possible). The houses are on stilts, which serves many practical functions throughout the year. Snowbanks formed beneath and around the house, and on the roof, serve as extra insulation during the wintertime, as well as forming a shield from the downward circulation of frigid wind from the mountaintop. because the roofplane is oriented flank-side to the mountain, snow merges with the roof like a ski-jump, saving the interior of the house from a harsh draft.

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About the Thermal Environment

The largest organ in the human body is our skin, the shell within which all of our systems can thrive. Our skin in and of itself is a system, with tiny neurons sending electrical impulses to our brain. Our skin not only holds our body together, but helps to regulate the temperature of our insides. Like a house’s brick exterior, our skin keeps us safe and warm. According to Lechner, our bodies are a biological machine, “all warm-blooded animals, and humans in particular, require a very constant temperature” (Lechner 56). Because our skin is such a thin material, it has a hard time maintaining the constant temperature that we require to thrive within our environments. That is why architecture becomes so important to widespread general wellbeing.

The thermal environments that we find ourselves in are not quantifiable in a data-collecting sense. Sure, the outside temperature can be gridded out in numbers, but a piece of metal that is 70 degrees feels much different than a pile of mulch that is the same temperature. That is because our human bodies register not the measurable ‘heat’ of something, but rather the flow of heat in relation to us. This heat flow is governed by a series of factors, including a material’s conductivity. We sense temperature based on how quickly our bodies are losing or gaining heat.

In terms of the built world, our perception of the thermal environment plays a large part in how comfortable a space is. Temperature is only one factor in a milieu of complex interactions: an interior space’s level of comfort is affected also by dew point, relative humidity, and sources of direct radiation. Comfort is not something that can be technologically determined based solely on temperature, similar to Moe’s discussion on technology in the architectural world. Moe states that “machine mentality and predetermined solutions negate the role of human choice in architectural design”(Moe 38). The entire complexity of thermal interactions must be taken into account, because the human element of an architectural space is that which is the most important.

The early goals of any building, as Addingdon discusses, were to relieve the stress of extreme environments, to dull them. “The building as shelter was never saddled with the need to provide for comfort, as it served only to ameliorate those extreme conditions that were beyond the human body’s ability for adaptation” (Addingdon 13). Today, however, the building’s purpose is to try and re-create Lechner’s model of the ‘Garden of Eden’, the perfect level of interior comfort for optimum human pleasure.

Modern building technology and architecture around the globe shows the repercussions of this goal. Regulating a building’s interior temperature is one of the top energy consumers worldwide, America alone guzzling nearly 40 quadrillion Btu of energy (

There has been a recent movement towards more sustainable architectural design, especially in relation to a building’s internal temperature regulation. Passive solar heating design is an especially interesting approach, where a every element of the building is made to collect, store and distribute energy from the sun (absorbing heat in the winter and reflecting solar heat in the summer). It is called ‘passive’ because it doesn’t involve the use of mechanical or electrical devices. Passive solar design takes advantage of the building’s climate, with orientation in relation to natural shade, seasonal fluctuations and yearly sun patterns.


An American case study of passive solar heating can be found in the Finch House, located in Denver, Colorado and completed in 2005. It uses a Direct Gain Passive Solar System to save over 90% of heating and cooling energy by designing for its surrounding environment.


There are south-facing glass panes, high enough that sun still comes in during the winter months but has overhangs that block the summer sun. There is little glass on the east and west sides, to avoid summer heat gain.


Clearstory windows use natural convection to make use of cool night air, and the entire house’s masonry walls are insulated. A huge amount of energy is saved yet the interior of the house remains comfortable, simply by designing the building to take advantage of its surrounding environment.

A look at network dynamics

In any given system, energy is the driving factor of all dynamic flows and processes on every scale. Living things can even be seen as ‘energy storage devices’, the flow of nutrients stuck in a sort of animated limbo; eventually returned to decompose back into the earth. With the rise of industrial cities, the organic networks of energy and constant cycles are forgotten. History itself becomes erased and irrelevant, we forget where we come from. Jacobs attacks this, and asserts that a monolithic culture has terrible resilience. Mass produced cultures and non-human industry lead to lifeless models that lack the human experience. This past week has been an exploration of different networks, and the evolution of urban and architectural networks over time—discussing what works and what fails.

A culture dominated by external, hierarchical forces is considered a centralized network. Centralized networks are imposing and limiting, not resilient and often very inefficient. Applying machine-like qualities to a city brings with it the brittle inability to respond to change while also squelching the organic life within it—the way the feudal lords suffocated the army of serfs that served them.


In nature, distributed networks bubble up and fuse together many different systems of nature that rely on each other, evolving and changing with one another in synchronized harmony. Distributed networks are empowering, connective, and resilient, allowing for innovation and experimentation and a constant swing and flow of change. Ecosystems are distributed networks, links of chains holding on to each other and providing specific functions that evolve and adapt. Our human bodies are distributed networks, feedback loops of hormones and chemicals registering to keep us healthy. Emergent cities are distributed networks, sustaining dialogue with their immediate environment and looking for change and growth into the future as more life begins to fill its scaffolding.

As humans, we need not forget about our role in the distributed network that is the world ecosystem. Our mechanized industry is an imposing hierarchy that pays no mind to its surroundings, causing ecosystems to flex beyond their point of resilience.  According to DeLanda, feedback in any system is never linear, and we must understand our history to understand our current dynamic state. In analyzing all of the problems that mankind has caused natural ecosystems, we must turn to their origins.

A striking consequence of centralized and decentralized city network  systems in our modern era can be seen in the Chesapeake Bay. In the midst of metropolitan sprawl, it’s easy to forget about the natural world. The Chesapeake is the epicenter for the East Coast’s biodiversity, but the entire ecosystem is suffering because of unsustainable human activity. According to the documentary Poisoned Waters, within the last 25 years, annual crab catch is down 50%. Small fisheries have been decimated by the changing ecosystem. The very heart of the bay has become a ‘dead zone’, a wasteland occupying 40% of the once-pristine waters. This means that the water’s oxygen content has been depleted such that conditions are toxic for marine life. Hypoxic conditions are caused by algae blooms, caused by an increase in available nutrients (namely, phosphorous and nitrogen). These chemicals come from runoff emptying into various rivers eventually leading to the bay.


The changing urban landscape of the centralized D.C. area is a major contributor to these chemicals. The metropolitan area has become an inefficient network of sprawling suburban centers, channeling in resources from far and wide and utterly disregarding our landscape. The forests of the Potomac are becoming impermeable concrete and asphalt surfaces before our very eyes, and rainwater sweeps traffic pollution down the river and into the Chesapeake Bay.


DeLanda discusses that urban infrastructure is like “bone to our fleshy parts”, but that they often operate far from natural equilibrium. Markets surpass the size of local gatherings, and become a hierarchy of meshworks: falling into cycles of intense exploitations and then depletions that halt growth. In the industrial age, the bifurcations that previously functioned as self-regulating feedback loops are now ignored and invented beyond. Tyson’s corner is a good example of this disregard for a system that doesn’t work. A network of sprawling roads from the heart of the shopping center has become 6 lanes of traffic, people drive for hours just to reach a singular urban location.

Our decentralized food networks also contribute to this. In the 20th century, Purdue turned chicken farms into chicken factories. Large-scale farming as a mass producing machine is fundamentally altering the dynamics of our country’s ecosystems. The organic waste from enterprises such as this is shocking, also a major contributer to nitrogen and phosphorous flow into the Chesapeake Bay. The UPC (United Poultry Concerns) discusses that the annual litter from a typical broiler chicken house of 22,000 birds contains as much phosphorous as in the sewage from a community of 6,000 people. Excess nitrogen converts to ammonia and nitrates, burning the fragile cells of land plants and poisoning ground and surface waters. Concentrated poultry waste spawns excess algae that consume aquatic nutrients and block sunlight needed by underwater grasses. In decay, the algae suffocate fish. High levels of nitrate in groundwater used as drinking water can cause methemoglobinemia, a blood disorder in infants, known also as “blue baby disease” ( Instead of fetching resources from so far away, distributed networks rely on that which is directly available to them, and work through a series of linkages and natural feedback loops to keep both their growth and efficiency in check.

I think that if Americans begin to realize that we cannot ‘design’ our way out of every problem that we encounter, and start listening to the natural flows of the earth, our planet as a whole will function much more smoothly. Networks and feedback loops will be at ease, and the places that we live will breathe into a new sort of resilience like our very bodies. 


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