Commercial and Institutional Design: Maintaining Sensitivity to Climate

Written by Lavina Liburd, OBM International   

Published in BVI Property Guide

Monday, 23 August 2010

 

Commercial and institutional buildings in the Caribbean have become less adapted to climate and environment in recent decades.  We have gradually seen the advent of the air-conditioned, sealed box sometimes decorated with “traditional” elements as the standard model for office design.

A strong connection between interior and exterior, mediated by generous shaded outdoor spaces, was a feature of Caribbean and other tropical building design.  This has virtually disappeared from our towns and cities. Many of the government buildings in the Caribbean were built in the early Modernist era. Tropical Modernist buildings often included a ground level indoor-outdoor atrium space, which brought greenery into the building and aided in cross-ventilation. 

These buildings also often employed the brise-soleil, a sun-shading device built unto the building’s façade which also reduced heat gain. Earlier Colonial-era institutional buildings in the Caribbean were often surrounded by an arcade or veranda, which provided climate control via shading and served as an outdoor lobby, reception and waiting area. Much of the aesthetic and experiential qualities embodied in both these building types are lost in contemporary office and institutional buildings. 

For owners, it is important to ensure that their buildings are profitable, and for tenants to ensure that they make practical decisions with regards to space usage. Additionally, legitimate concerns over security discourage the provision of outdoor spaces easily accessible from every floor. In institutional and government buildings, the advent of air conditioning has also created a preference for fully enclosed waiting areas in lieu of the informal reception gallery or veranda, making the indoor-outdoor lobby obsolete.

Sunshades at the AIG/AICO Ltd Expansion, Bermuda, designed by OBMI, serve as inspiration for BVI projects. Photo courtesy of OBMI.

Technological and design advances are necessary to promote economic efficiency and effective service delivery. Additionally, studies show that the quality of the workspace— aesthetics, thermal comfort, air quality—greatly contribute to worker productivity. The wrap-around veranda on all levels is financially impractical for most commercial and institutional buildings. However, this leaves the building’s façade exposed to uneven heat gain through walls and windows, and glare from light penetration. Properly insulated walls and roofs can reduce the heat gain through the building envelope and greatly reduce the cooling loads on air-conditioning systems. This in turn results in great savings in operational costs, reduced load on the electrical system and a longer life-span for the mechanical system. Incorporating shading devices such as Bahama shutters, horizontal and vertical sunshades and light-shelves at windows and glazed walls, reduces glare and uneven heat gain while promoting even, natural lighting throughout the internal space. Concurrently, it is important to recognize that air-conditioning does not automatically equal thermal comfort. A properly zoned and balanced system is key. Such a system separates zones of high heat gain near windows and roofs from internal zones, providing separate thermostats and controls to balance the temperature across the space. 

Carefully programmed outdoor space can also be a great tropical advantage to both owner and tenant. An upper-level shaded terrace can double as a lunchroom or smoking terrace. A rooftop lounge can take advantage of previously unutilized space to provide an amenity, rentable for corporate functions or community events. 

It becomes clear, taking into account all the issues and ideas discussed here, that careful consideration of climatic, mechanical, spatial, aesthetic, cultural and contextual factors are required to create a highly functional building. Simultaneously creating an iconic image of which the corporation or institution and the community can be proud, will, by creating increased value, ensure the longevity and continued profitability of the project.