BY BRIAN LIBBY
For all the technology and hard science behind what's called the Climate Chamber at University of Oregon's Energy Studies in Buildings Laboratory, the effect it has on people is a little bit like magic. Professor G.Z. Brown, who heads the school's two ESBLs, in Eugene and Portland, has seen even highly trained designers express disbelief or even giddy laughter after spending time inside.
The Climate Chamber, one of the teaching tools that will be on display during Thursday's ESBL open house at UO's Portland outpost (better known as the White Stag Block), is a box-like room in which temperature, relative humidity, radiant field and air speed are all tightly controlled. "With those four variables, you can put people in the box and measure their comfort," Brown says. And that's where the trick-that-isn't-a-trick comes in. "We asked them to tell us what the temperature is and whether they’re comfortable. We found out they can’t predict the temperature although they know whether they’re comfortable or not."
Settings for conventional heating and cooling systems are almost always based solely on temperature. A standard defined comfort zone range in an office or other workplace, for example, might be something like 72 to 76 degrees. The Climate Chamber demonstrates how much human comfort is based on these other factors as well, like the radiant temperature of surfaces or the amount of air moving through a space. "If you turn down your ceiling fan, it might feel warmer than it is," Brown says. "If the radiant field is cooler, you feel cooler even though the air temp might be higher."
Brown and his team have brought a variety of building owners, developers and other community members besides architects into the Climate Chamber, but he says designers are the most surprised. He recalls a pair of engineers who laughed good-naturedly at their faulty guesses on temperature. "They could not believe they couldn’t predict it," he remembers. They ran through it a couple of times, and they were giddy. We see that often. People mis-guess on the hot side by as much as 6 degrees and on the cold side by as much as 15 degrees."
There's a level of common sense to this, of course, but the Climate Chamber helps to make that information more resonant, more palpable. "It’s not new information," Brown explains, "but to feel it is completely different from understanding that in analytical terms." So while the Climate Chamber joins other measuring tools at the ESBL as a means for students and local architects to study daylighting and its effects, it also has a kind of theatrical power of persuasion that can be shared with people beyond the academy and the architecture studio. "We realized we could bring engineers, developers and others down, run them through some of these variables, and show that they’re comfortable outside of the standard comfort zone." And in a lot of building projects, he adds, "You just cut one or two degrees and it makes a big difference. It’s an inexpensive way to get better performance."
Besides the parlor-trick aspect of the Climate Chamber, the ESBL also can provide a variety of measurements. One recent study, for instance, looked at the presence of microorganisms in a space depending on whether it's naturally ventilated or sealed off and air conditioned. HVAC design has long sought to filter out unwanted pathogens, "but some microorganisms are beneficial to our development," Brown explains. "When you put in a filter, you take out indiscriminately. You may be taking out things that are good and things that are not good for you."
I first became aware of Brown's work twelve years ago, when the school opened a daylighting lab at its Portland satellite campus to help local architects and students learn to maximize natural illumination. But by 2002 Brown had already spent more than 20 years teaching and impacting the profession about sustainable design.
The Yale-educated professor and former Fulbright scholar is the author of two pioneering books: 1982's Inside Out: Design Procedures for Passive Environmental Technologies and 1985's Sun, Wind & Light: Architectural Design Strategies. "Daylighting is as old as architecture itself,'' Brown told me in an interview for a 2003 New York Times story. ''But with the invention of efficient electric light, it's something we've gotten away from.'' Yet Brown is equally an expert on air movement in architecture, having written 2004's Natural Ventilation in Buildings.
Besides his work as an architecture professor (based mostly at UO's main Eugene campus) and author, Brown through the ESBL has also consulted on many projects, and even helped create new technology for spreading daylight that has been used in several projects. In 2007, Brown and colleagues invented a special skylight that helps maintain balanced light levels even when light levels outside change dramatically.
"In order to meet the required light levels on overcast days you need a large opening,'" Brown explained in Architectural Lighting magazine. 'But that means the rest of the time, it's too big.' That's why the polycarbonate skylight is outfitted on top with a succession of integrated louvers that automatically adjust based on sensor readings, opening and closing in relation to the amount of available sunlight, so that a minimum interior light level of 20 to 40 footcandles (a range chosen by the team because it represents existing national and international standards) is maintained at all times during daylight hours. That protype, co-designed with Mike Hatten of SOLARC and Heinz Rudolf of Boora, soon was incorporated into an SRG Partnership-designed classroom at Mt. Angel Abbey. The ESBL has since consulted on many local projects, many of them designed by SRG in a continuing collaboration (the firm even funds graduate research fellows at the ESBL), such as the Portland Community College Southeast Learning Commons, which features a distinctive "light cones" that direct natural illumination through multiple floor openings.
In the more than 30 years since his first book was published, or even just the past decade for that matter, Brown says he has seen enormous transformation in sustainable design and its acceptance.
"The design profession has changed dramatically," he says. "I go to these meetings with consultants I’ve worked with before, and they’ve gone from being adversaries to advocates.In that sense things have changed dramatically." But he also cautions that it's too easy to talk about your building or your design being sustainable without that always being the case. And that's why tools at the ESBL such as the Climate Chamber, or the Heliodon (which tracks solar orientation for any lattitude, any day of the year), or the Artificial Sky (a full-scale mockup of a daylit room) help root the process in hard data. If the data or how we perceive it happens to surprise us, like it has with the Climate Chamber, then all the better to reinforce the lesson.
[NOTE: In the spirit of full disclousure, the University of Oregon's School of Architecture and Allied Arts is a sponsor of this blog, and sponsors should never determine editorial content. I judged the topic of Brown's work and the ESBL to be worthy of coverage in their own right. I've written about both in numerous publications long before the sponsorship began.]