John Ochsendorf builds on ancient architecture for green ideas

Listen to John Ochsendorf, engineer and architectural historian at MIT, talk about what we can learn about “green” design from buildings that are hundreds or thousands of years old.

John Ochsendorf: Today, we think that architecture is independent of climate. You build a sleek glass box, whether you’re in Dallas, Texas or London, England, and you don’t pay attention to where you are.

That’s John Ochsendorf, a structural engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He studies buildings that are hundreds or thousands of years old. He said they were more environmentally-friendly than new buildings.

John Ochsendorf: Traditional constructions had to be oriented to take advantage of prevailing winds in the summer, or to be optimized in terms of natural lighting so they got maximum sunlight in winter.

Ochsendorf said that when buildings are tailored to their environment, they conserve a lot of energy. That’s why Ochsendorf helped design a conference center in England with an 800-year-old Gothic cathedral in mind.

John Ochsendorf: We basically adapted in many cases medieval technologies of masonry vaulting, rammed earth walls. The walls were made of compressed soil from the site, using natural light and natural ventilation to make a 21st century green building.

Compared to a standard glass-box building, he said, the conference center took 80% less energy to build, and now takes 70% less energy to maintain.

John Ochsendorf: So those are the kind of radical changes we’re going to need over the next fifty years if we’re going to get serious about global warming.

Our thanks to:
John Ochsendorf is a structural engineer and architectural historian at MIT who works to preserve historic structures and to reinterpret ancient technologies for contemporary use. Ochsendorf was a recipient in 2008 of a MacArthur “genius” fellowship.

Photo Credit: seier

Beth Lebwohl