Forrest Meggers on an architecture for sustainability

Tuesday, Jul 15, 2014

Forrest Meggers is an assistant professor in the School of Architecture and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. He came to Princeton in September 2013 from the National University of Singapore, where he was an assistant professor in the School of Design and Environment. Meggers earned a Dr. sc. with a specialization in building systems from ETH Zurich, and an M.S. in environmental engineering from the University of Iowa. This summer he will begin work on a research project entitled Beyond Shading: New materials, technologies, and forms for cool spaces with his colleagues in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. He is organized a symposium about architectural technology that was held during Reunions 2014: Backwards+Forwards: The history and future of technical research in architecture and buildings at Princeton.

What are your primary research interests?

Overall my research is about working towards a sustainable built environment. Achieving sustainability isn’t necessarily all about the analytical calculations and numbers but about changing perspectives and paradigms. One concept I’m interested in is low exergy design. It emphasizes the impact of design decisions on the overall system performance. A low exergy building is one where systems such as heating and cooling are integrated into the architecture itself, which increases their performance. For example, usually we optimize heating efficiency by minimizing the amount of heat lost, whereas this approach focuses on how we move heat in.

I’m interested in finding hidden potential for efficiencies in building design. This summer I plan to build a pavilion with senior thesis students next to the architecture laboratory. We’ll put radiant cooling pipes in the concrete and use an evaporative cooling device. By manipulating the mean radiant temperature generated by the building’s surfaces, people will have the sensation of being cooler without using air conditioning.

Why is studying building systems important for the environment?

It is imperative to address performance issues in buildings. Buildings are responsible for about half of all greenhouse gas emissions when the indirect impacts of energy supply, forestry, waste emissions, and materials such as cement are included. By thinking about how we design and use materials in our built environment more broadly, we can drastically reduce building CO2 production.

How can architects and engineers better work together to design buildings that are energy-efficient?

Usually an engineer supplies the systems and the architect makes space for the systems, but if we focus less on individual components and more on integrated design we can achieve much higher efficiency gains. “Integrated design” is a catchy phrase in architecture, but it can be difficult to drill down to those very specific, technical components as engineers do, while at the same time thinking about the broader implications of design as architects do.We need to be more pragmatic about our aesthetics, and more subjective about our analytics, because analytics and aesthetics are not totally separate things.

How do you impart these concepts to your students?

This past year I created two new courses: Elemental Building Function (ARC 521) and Designing Sustainable Systems: Applying the Science of Sustainability to Address Global Change (ENE 202/ARC 208/EGR 208/ENV 206). I designed Elemental Building Function as a play on Aristotle’s four elements — earth, air, water, and fire — using the elements to frame the functions of a building. I broke it down into a conceptual level, which made it more accessible to architecture students than if I would have taught it like an analytical method class. In Designing Sustainable Systems we focused on the fundamentals of sustainability first, including population, pollution, energy, and climate change. The second half of the course included a design project and addressed concepts like lifecycle assessment, industrial ecology, and biomimicry.