Were ancient buildings more energy efficient?

Our sleek, glass-box buildings of today tend not to take climate into consideration, according to structural engineer John Ochsendorf of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

John Ochsendorf of MIT studies buildings that are hundreds or thousands of years old. He said ancient buildings in general were indeed more energy efficient and environmentally-friendly than many of today’s modern buildings.

According to Ochsendorf, traditional constructions in earlier times 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.

He 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. He said, “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.

Our thanks to John Ochsendorf.
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.