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A blog of all things workplace related (when I get time).

© Oseland 2011

Vernacular Design, Air-con and Teapots

WorkPosted by Oseland Sat, December 08, 2012 12:56:44

The humble teapot is a worthy example of what I call "vernacular design". You would have heard of vernacular architecture, which is building design that has evolved over time based on local culture, climate and resources, but vernacular design is a broader concept that includes the design of clothing, furniture, equipment and teapots etc.

Teapots date back to 16th century China – they were initially made of iron but over time they became fashioned from clay and then from porcelain. The shape of the teapot has changed very little over time, the key components being a solid base, good pouring spout, high-insulating material, and a well-fitting lid to allow the tea and water to be easily added. The “brown betty”, the iconic English teapot, optimises great vernacular and timeless design for me.

Chinese iron, brown betty and stainless steel teapots

So why is it that when I venture out for afternoon tea I am often presented with a misshapen stainless steel teapot that has a poorly-fitting lid and is made from material that can’t retain heat (so my tea is cold by the second cup) plus is furnished with a spout that dribbles tea all over the saucer and table? The answer is simple, such a teapot is mass produced, it is cheap and easy to construct, and it kind of works and looks good when it is brand new. And that exactly reflects the situation with most of today’s air-conditioned speculative buildings. Post Occupancy Evaluations (POE) show that temperature control and air quality are two of the main causes of dissatisfaction in modern offices. I think it basically comes down to replacing good vernacular design with low risk, low cost options that ignore local requirements, which have evolved from a millennia of cultural development and climatic conditions.

I have taken issue with the standard of air-conditioned office for some time, ever since my Doctorate proved that we Brits prefer naturally ventilated spaces with good temperature control. The temperatures in UK offices in summer are dictated by international standards which still recommend set-point temperatures of 22 to 24 degree Celsius for those wearing suits and carrying out sedentary activity. So maybe the cultural norm of wearing suits (and ties) on days when the outside temperature indicates that lighter attire may be more comfortable is partly responsible for the increased perceived need for air-conditioned offices.

So let’s consider the suit for a moment. Apparently, the notion of tailoring developed in Europe gradually between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. By King Louis XIV's reign, the 17th century, men had stopped wearing the doublet, hose, and cloak and started to wear coats, vests, and breeches i.e. the three components of modern male attire. By the start of the 19th century the upper classes were dressing in a more restrained manner similar to the masses. The suit was born out of tailoring to accentuate the male physique and be less flamboyant than earlier European clothing trends. Thus the suit is a fashion item rather than developed out of need, which is quite different to traditional clothing – and don’t get me on to that superfluous piece of cloth called the tie.

There are many examples of where vernacular architecture and clothing design symbiotically support the local culture and climate. At one climatic extreme, we have the Inuit people who replace their waterproof sealskin boots, dense polar bear parkas and igloos in winter with soft elk robes, buffalo moccasins and their tupiq tent in summer. In contrast, Arabic clothing includes long flowing robes (the thobe or dishdasha) which create a pumping action with movement to cool the body. Arabic buildings have wind catchers – tall towers that divert cool air to the building whilst pushing out warm air using the stack effect. Thick walls, shadowed courtyards and landscaping all help keep the occupants cool by natural and passive means.

Japan provides some of my favourite examples of clothing and building design working well together. On my last trip there I stayed in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, were the minimalist room simply had tatami mat flooring, a foldaway futon and a kotatsu, which is a low wooden table with an underneath heat source. There is no central heating system in traditional Japanese accommodation, so in bygone years the occupant would sit in their robe (either a light yukata or a heavier kimono) and pin the corners of the robe to the table so that they received a direct gust of warm air – highly localised rather than central heating.

A few years ago the Japanese Government introduced the concept of Cool Biz into the workplace. In Japan’s hot summer months, offices are highly air-conditioned to cool the very formally dressed office workers. The idea of Cool Biz was to encourage office works to dress down, and for it to become culturally acceptable, so that set-point (thermostat) temperatures in building could be raised in summer thus saving energy and reducing carbon emissions. The campaign was a success and has continued with significant carbon savings year on year. So let’s ditch the suit in the UK and encourage developers to build more naturally ventilated offices.

The Quadrant – Network Rail’s new HQ

I have just completed a POE of the Quadrant, Network Rail’s new headquarters in Milton Keynes. One of the key success factors of the Quadrant is that it is naturally ventilated (albeit by automated window opening). The staff like the freshness of the air quality, the links to the outside world and even that the papers on their desk gently rustle in a summer breeze. The natural ventilation, ample food/drink stations and good daylight in the Quadrant all cater for our evolutionary psychological needs – one of my pet subjects referred to in my previous blogs and papers. But more significantly, the Quadrant occupants appear more tolerant of the occasional hot day in return for the other benefits on offer. Naturally ventilated spaces are traditionally the domain of the small shallow-plan bespoke office, so in their substantial 400,000 sq ft office has Network Rail shown us a viable alternative to the generic air-conditioned box so often offered by real estate developers?

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