Perhaps the most important performative function of a building, especially those in cold climates, is its insulation value. More often than not this important function is achieved through the most un-phenomenal of all materials (foam) hidden from sight within a cavity wall, leaving both the exterior and interior surfaces as canvases for more expensive and expressive material finishes. The two examples pictured below are exceptions to this rule.
CHIP, the “Compact-Hyper-Insulated Prototype” was designed and built by students at SCI-Arc and Caltech for the 2011 Solar Decathlon competition. This prefab, net-zero, solar-powered house relies on a super-insulation layer to achieve its high energy performance standards. Rather than hide the insulation within a cavity wall, this house makes it the most expressive aspect of the architecture by placing it on the exterior of the wood stud and plywood structure which is then wrapping in a durable vinyl skin.
The Artists’ Studios in Aberystwyth by the London firm Heatherwick Studio takes a very similar approach but with a different set of materials. Instead of vinyl, the architects worked with a Finnish metal rolling mill to develop an innovative, super-thin, stainless steel foil as an exterior skin that wraps a thick layer of spray-foam insulation beneath. In order to both increase the foil’s rigidity and express the irregular form of the spray foam, intentional crumpling was introduced into the rolling process, giving the impression of a building wrapped in a thin metallic survival blanket.
Both projects are provocative examples of how architecture can poetically express certain high-performance aspects of its design. They also hint at ways in which buildings might immitate high-performance clothing in order to deal with issues of not only insulation but also breathability and humidity regulation. Thinking along these lines, what are the architectural implications of both high-tech textiles such as Gore-Tex—which is simultaneously windproof, waterproof and breathable—as well as low-tech fabrics such as wool which is naturally anti-microbial, fire-resistant, and highly insulative even when wet.
In addition to thinking about how high-performance textiles might be applied to high-performance building, perhaps architecture might also learn from shifts in fashion that accompany seasonal change. Rather than overheating our buildings during the winter and over-cooling them in the summer, oftentimes requiring counter-intuitive wardrobes choices throughout the year, perhaps we might consider how seasonal weather shifts might alter the way we use our buildings in the same way we might shift our choice of coat or footware depending on the season. How can the formal manipulation or programmatic reorganization of a building according to the season become a ritualistic and meaningful engagement with a particular climate, rather than creating uniform thermal conditions via standardized mechanical equipment. What is the architectural equivalent of the Russian Ushank or the black robes of the Bedouins? How can architecture become more climate responsive while simultaneously expressing cultural specificity?