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Review: Architecture and Climate

As we seek to make our buildings more energy efficient, the relationship between architecture and climate has never been more relevant than today; or so we may think. Dean Hawkes begins the eight essay narrative, that forms the core of Architecture and Climate, An environmental history of British architecture 1600-2000, (Routledge) by describing the period when Britain was in the grip of the ‘Little Ice Age’. We soon realise that the relationship between the elements and buildings was every bit as pertinent then as it is today.

For his evidence, Hawkes draws on literature, art, scientific papers, personal journals, household accounts and a wealth of other documents. Lighting and heating a building for comfort and practicality was the challenge; the inventories of the day give copious lists of the candles, candleholders, andirons and other accouterments required to achieve this.

Orientation, thermal mass and ventilation were, as now, key. Palladio provided explicit guidelines for the dimensions of windows in relation to the size of rooms in order to ensure sufficient daylight and to avoid too much heat or cold according to the season. These, being conceived for the Italian climate, were not valid in the cooler British climate. ‘The pragmatic British easily understood this, and a defining characteristic of British Palladianism is the climatic fine-tuning that it demonstrates’, explains Hawkes.

A subtext to this book is the relationship between people, architecture and climate. Until relatively recently, the population lived their lives in tune with the seasons and the hours of daylight. Christopher Wren was, as the book’s third essay recounts, a pioneer of building science. Yet, according to Hawkes, it is unlikely that, at Trinity College, Cambridge, The Wren Library ‘would have been much used after dark, particularly in the winter months, when the inside temperatures would have been very low’.

Building conservation is first and foremost about understanding context and this book does an admirable job in this respect. It is not a light read; this is an academic work of great detail, formed from apparently impeccable research and with extensive references.

What Hawkes has done admirably is to fulfill the terms of reference he sets down at the start: to show ‘that the meeting of architecture and climate is as much a question of history and culture as it is of technology.’ As we seek answers to climate related concerns in our built heritage today, this is a fact that we could do well to remember.