Skip to content

The Architecture of the Well-tempered Environment: a late review

There is much in Reyner Banham's 1969 classic that resonates today.

There are two subjects that I have written a lot about over the last dozen years at TreeHugger: the future of the office, and the healthy home. These days, they are conflated because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an earlier post, I complained that there was a fundamental problem in the American Way of Building: crappy heating and air conditioning. I referenced Reyner Banham and his 1969 book, The Architecture of the Well-tempered Environment, which was a profound influence on me when I was at the University of Toronto School of Architecture. I wrote:

The problem is the American Way of Building, as Banham described it: fast and light, and if you have a problem, throw smart tech and cheap fuel at it. And of course, the failure of architects and designers, who have abdicated their responsibility for indoor comfort, designing without consideration of the consequences for the indoor environment, and just handing the whole thing over to the engineers and contractors to solve it for them.

After writing that post I kept going and re-read the book in its entirety; here are some of the other lessons I was reminded of.

Banham starts with a description of environmental management before we had modern systems. Most architecture was massive. Thick and weighty structures had thermal advantages; the mass of masonry stores the heat of the fire during the day and keeps one warmer at night. “Alternatively, the thick walls of a hot climate will hold solar heat during the day, slowing down the rate to which the interior becomes hot, and then, after sunset, the radiation of that hit into the house will help temper the sudden chill of the evening.”

Thomas Edison house/ Fort MyersThomas Edison house/ Fort Myers/Public Domain

But not everywhere. In tropical and humid climates (like the south-eastern United States) houses had elevated living floors to offer maximum exposure to prevailing breezes, huge parasol roofs, continuous porches and balconies to protect walls from slanting sun, large floor to ceiling windows and doors for maximum cross ventilation, tall ceilings, central halls, and vented attics.

All forgotten since the development of air conditioning; now we just move the same air around and around again inside the house. It's why you get the same house or building anywhere in the country: you can throw energy and air conditioning at it instead of designing it for the climate. Banham writes about modern HVAC, “a neat box with control knobs and a mains [electrical] connection”:

By providing almost total control of the atmospheric variables of temperature, humidity and purity, it has demolished almost all of the environmental constraints on design that have survived that other great breakthrough, electric lighting. For anyone who is prepared to foot the consequent bill for power consumed, it is now possible to live in almost any type or form of house one likes to name in any region of the world that takes the fancy. Given this convenient climactic package one may live under low ceilings in the humid tropics, behind thin walls in the arctic and under uninsulated roofs in the desert.

Suburban houseFor sale: single garage with single bathroom house/CC BY 2.0

In the United States, air conditioning has made the established lightweight tract-developers' house habitable throughout the nation, and since this is the house that the US building industry is geared to produce above all others, it is now endemic from Maine to California, Seattle to Miami, from the Rockies to the Bayous.

And he wrote this fifty years ago!

passive vs grandmaPassive house or Grandma's house?/Public Domain

Being a fan of Banham is one of the reasons I became such a fan of Passive House or Passivhaus; here was a concept where you really couldn't separate the design of the building from its environmental constraints. Energy consumption and air movement actually define it. Whereas I used to think we should build like we did before Banham's regenerative systems, (See Steve Mouzon's Original Green) I came to realize that people are not going to be willing to live without air conditioning in hot climates or in apartments without cross-ventilation, fanning themselves on the veranda while sipping iced tea. That's when I went from Grandma's house to Passive House.

All that is solid melts into MacBook Air

At work in open office© Open office, 1935/ Edwin Levick/Getty Images

Banham has a lot to say about office buildings and skyscrapers too, which is applicable to the situation today. He suggests that too little credit is given to the environmental factors in their design.

Skyscraper office blocks in particular introduced novel discomforts and difficulties which required urgent solution. Such matters normally receive scant treatment in the historical literature, which commonly assumes that the steel frame and the elevator were all that were needed to make tall office blocks possible. In fact, a gaggle of other devices, such as electric lighting and the telephone, were equally necessary for business to proceed at all, and without the ability for business to proceed, skyscrapers would never have happened.

Equitable Life BuildingNew Equitable Life Building /Public Domain

It's no surprise that the first skyscrapers in New York City were built for insurance companies; the whole point was to bring together massive numbers of clerical workers to copy and file and type and phone customers, all tied together by subways and telephone lines and electrical wires. The file cabinet and the phone, and then the typing pool are what made the office necessary. The wiring and the plumbing. Banham quotes a writer from 1902:

Professor Elihu Thompson once very shrewdly observed to the writer that if electric light had been in use for centuries and the candle had just been invented, it would have been hailed as one of the great blessings of the century, on the ground that it is perfectly self-contained, always ready for use and perfectly mobile.

working without windows© Hulton Archive/Getty Images/ Give these workers a window!

Phones, electric lights, electric typewriters and photocopiers, and then desktop computers were until recently, fixed by wires, whether electric, telephone, or CAT-5. Filing cabinets are big and heavy. Now, like that candle, all our tools are always ready for use and perfectly mobile. When “All that is solid melts into MacBook Air” (a play on the title of a classic book about social and economic modernization), does the office building serve a useful function? Banham wrote “without the ability for business to proceed, skyscrapers would never have happened.” When they are no longer needed for business to proceed, will they disappear?

I suspect that this lockdown has been a real education for a lot of companies, that they are spending a whole lot of money and time supporting a way of working that no longer makes much sense.

Finally, Banham had much to say about the architectural profession, which he says was “happy to hand over all forms of environmental management to other specialists, and have taught young architects to continue in this dereliction of manifest duty.”

It is obviously too late in the day to begin blaming architects for the fact that this situation exists, especially since the blame lies also with society at large for not having demanded of them that they be any more than the creators of inefficient environmental sculptures, however handsome.

We can, and should demand more. Here, I must circle back to a session I attended recently during a Global Passive House Happy Hour, where engineer and consultant Sally Godber of WARM described how she worked with Mikhail Riches on the design of a Passive House social housing project that was so smart and so gorgeous that it won the Stirling Prize, the most prestigious in the UK. (starting at 10:30 on the video)

Complexity auditComplexity audit/Video screen capture

It becomes so clear that if you don't come in after the fact and say “make this work” but think of it as an integrated process right from the beginning, the architecture evolves to be both a handsome environmental structure, but and also an efficient, affordable project. Then you can have a healthy building with good air quality and you don't just throw smart tech and a big heat pump at it.

Goldsmith Street facades© Tim Crocker via RIBA

This is the way we have to design everything now, so that our buildings are healthy, energy-efficient, and beautiful. I suspect that Reyner Banham would have approved.

Banham updated The Architecture of the Well-tempered Environment in 1984; according to the publisher,

Banham has added considerable new material on the use of energy, particularly solar energy, in human environments. Included in the new material are discussions of Indian pueblos and solar architecture, the Centre Pompidou and other high-tech buildings, and the environmental wisdom of many current architectural vernaculars.

That edition might be even more relevant to today's conditions; I have been reading the 1969 edition and the message seemed as fresh as ever: we can't just throw technology and energy at a building anymore. The design for energy performance and comfort are inseparable from the architecture.

There is much in Reyner Banham's 1969 classic that resonates today.