Too hot to handle?

While nobly reducing environmental impact, sustainable buildings aren’t always the most comfortable buildings. Here, architect Guy Luscombe and sustainability expert John Brodie discuss thermal comfort in aged care facilities and why ‘dynamic environments’ are the logical next step.


While nobly reducing environmental impact, sustainable buildings aren’t always the most comfortable buildings. Here, architect Guy Luscombe and sustainability expert John Brodie discuss thermal comfort in aged care facilities and why ‘dynamic environments’ are the logical next step. 

The prevailing wisdom in building design over the last couple of years has been to ensure there is a reasonable level of sustainability implemented into the building outcomes. Optimised shading, increased air flow, natural ventilation, reduced energy and water use, double glazed windows – the list is long and valuable.

This has been done with the goal of reducing carbon-based energy consumption in order to lower greenhouse gases and decrease the effects of climate change.

What we really need to work on is how that is best achieved in an aged care context.

It is important to bear in mind that a sustainable building doesn’t necessarily result in a comfortable building, unless this concept is considered up front. Much discussion about environmentally sustainable design in aged care centres on the bottom line. However, in a setting where care is being provided, the starting point should be the recipients of care, and by extension, those that look after them. Thermal comfort is paramount.

Unfortunately there is currently a paucity of thermal comfort research in Australia, especially in aged care. Every client we speak to has a different interpretation of what their residents find comfortable; our experience is that many clients guess, based on their own needs or on anecdotal evidence, not on science. And let’s not forget it is a very complicated and detailed subject. One size does not fit all.

For example, many older residents are supposed to prefer very hot conditions, yet in some recent research VIM Sustainability undertook on thermal comfort in an aged care facility in Sydney, residents were very comfortable in winter at an internal temperature of 18.5 degrees. Operators will advise this is too cold, but the residents themselves were very happy. This highlights the gap between research and reality.

A body’s ability to adapt to environmental conditions is part of its normal function, and even if diminished in older age, would still conceivably have some health benefits. This is good for energy use too, as zoning buildings with different environmental characteristics to suit prevailing conditions is a more appropriate use of energy.

The latest international research indicates that people are happiest when they have some control over their environment. There is also a large amount of research validating that the health of the body improves in a dynamic living environment where the internal conditions change just as the external conditions change.

This approach also fits in nicely with the view that making spaces as ‘normal’ as possible has benefits for older people, especially those living with dementia. Our ability to locate ourselves in a space or area, to know if it is morning or night, windy or wet, hot or cold, is based on us experiencing changes in our environment consistent with being outside. This is achieved via our skin and our senses.
Being locked inside a ‘bank vault’ at 22.5 degrees and 300 lux – a typical air conditioned artificially lit space – for the rest of your life would not be very exciting and would not prolong health or quality of life. How many of our facility’s residents are in bank vaults? Static, dead environments that offer no change, no variability and no relief are not the way forward. Dynamism is the way forward.
A dynamic environment has a number of benefits. It would provide a more realistic and potentially healthier environment for older people. It would also be a more appropriate use of energy and resources, designed to target areas based on function, activity and size. It would be the more sustainable approach and there would be less ‘wasted’ energy.

If we were to provide variances in the internal environment, say moving from one room to another where the temperatures, light or humidity levels change, heart rates will vary, transpiration will change and the body will be mobilised to respond. Eyes will move and readjust to different lighting levels or colours, ears will readjust to different sound levels. All of these dynamic changes improve the living environment for residents. This is the concept of thermal delight and new studies investigating allesthesia [experiencing a sensation] and its relationship to thermal comfort are seeking further detail on this.

From a design point of view, there are natural separations anyway between ‘front of house’ and ‘back of house’ areas, for example, so zoning here is easy. Residents’ bedrooms often have their own controls. We are also seeing more variety in the types of communal spaces within facilities, from the smaller intimate sitting and reading spaces through to the larger group areas, and these could have different environmental conditions.

We should also remember the outside world. With more focus on the benefit of outdoor space, whether directly overlooking or actually being in it, there could be transition spaces. Many facilities are incorporating indoor-outdoor areas (outdoor areas covered and screened) for residents to enjoy and feel part of the outdoors. The verandah, for example, is a common form of this type of space in the Australian context.

Working with architects to achieve this for the satisfaction of all, including the cost planners and accountants, is one of the key challenges as we move into the next stage of sustainable building design. However, detailed comfort research is required to establish the base parameters to brief the project team. This will lead to greater levels of comfort and the desired reduction in the use of resources for the residents and operators.

From a sustainability point of view, creating ‘dynamic’ environments, more attuned to residents’ varied needs, will not only save on energy and running costs but could have health benefits for residents. It needs to start with the residents.

Guy Luscombe is an award winning architect who specialises in ageing. He is principal of GLAD studio. John Brodie, the principal of VIM Sustainability, has been a construction and design manager for over 30 years.

Tags: architecture, comfort, facility design, guy-luscombe, john-brodie, sustainability,

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