Sealed, deep, dark glass buildings must disappear. These buildings, by definition, lock in a chemical soup of materials and occupant activities with serious consequences for human health—from asthma to skin and eye irritations, reproductive difficulties, and cancer. Equally critical, however, deep, sealed buildings with windowless spaces or darkened glass also lock out the natural conditioning resources of daylighting, natural ventilation, passive solar heating, and night cooling, which are nature’s renewable bounty and the centerpiece of resiliency.

Instead, we need to design for “environmental surfing”: maximizing natural conditioning in ways specific to each climate, and minimizing energy and water resource extraction and pollution; maximizing local materials and reducing their transportation impact and toxicity; and simplifying technological complexity with just-in-time and just-where-needed technological innovation.

Environmental surfing for free heat—designing for sunlight. Since heating remains the largest energy load in U.S. buildings, highly insulated and airtight building enclosures will ensure that passive solar heat is the dominant heating source. Well-designed buildings will “free roll” for 75 percent to 90 percent of the time without mechanical heating, with the remaining modest loads met by high-efficiency mechanical systems and district heat recovery.

Environmental surfing for free cooling—designing for natural cooling. Designing dynamic enclosures to minimize unwanted sun during overheated periods is the first step in providing comfort. At the same time, these enclosures must dynamically surf for natural cooling energies. Cooling with nature—through daytime and nighttime ventilation, evaporative cooling, time-lag construction, and ground source cooling such as earth tubes—can each be advanced significantly through 21st-century material and assembly innovations. Mixed-mode conditioning and the micro-zoning of conditioned spaces is the marriage of natural and mechanical cooling and ventilation strategies, which are critical for the zero-energy building community.

Environmental surfing for fresh air—designing for natural ventilation. As we seal our buildings more and more, mechanical ventilation becomes mandatory year-round, reaching 20 percent of the total load in commercial buildings. While variable speed fans, economizers, task air, desiccant air handlers, and heat recovery yield significant benefits for reducing ventilation energy use in buildings today, net zero can only be achieved by designing buildings for natural ventilation as the dominant ventilation strategy for every possible hour, day, month, and season.

Environmental surfing for light—designing for daylight. Energy-efficient lamps, ballasts, and fixtures are obvious first steps you can take to achieve 30 percent lighting energy savings. Daylight-responsive and occupancy-responsive controls shave the next 20 percent. Net zero, however, is achieved by buildings that are designed for daylighting as the dominant light source. When we rediscover the engineering and the art of effective daylight design, our buildings can surf for 90 percent of the time and eliminate electricity demand for lighting during the daytime.

Environmental surfing for water—designing with rain, graywater, and blackwater. The U.S. consumes the most water per capita, without a measurable quality of life gain over European countries that consume a quarter or even a tenth of that amount. We use potable water for everything, and we use it only once. We flood our cities and contaminate our rivers, and we are rapidly depleting our abundance of freshwater in many regions. To ensure our shared access to freshwater, we have the opportunity to lead through design creativity—preserving, cascading, and regenerating our water supplies.

Environmental surfing for mobility—designing for walking, biking, rowing, and more. Even mobility can be surfed, preserved, and cascaded through walkable, whole-life communities filled with a diversity of culture, ages, professions, and skills.

The environmental and human benefits of environmental surfing for sun, wind, light, natural cooling, on-site water, and live-work-walk mobility are huge. You’ll find these illustrated in tables on research studies that link access to the natural environment with human health and productivity.

The challenges to this future are few, among them a fascination with the technological solution; architectural branding that exports styles inappropriate to climate and culture; and silo-ed, risk-adverse disciplines that dismiss the power of collaborative design and indigenous expertise.

The solutions are many, led by each of the disciplines responsible for delivering the built environment:
  • “Branders” and clients dedicated to advancing the architecture of place, of right-sizing, and the perfect low-tech/high-tech balance of collaborative design.
  • Architects dedicated to local, renewable materials, embracing biophilia and passively conditioned outdoor “rooms” that reduce indoor footprints.
  • Engineers dedicated to shaking out unnecessary complexity, celebrating mixed-mode conditioning, distributed and simplified HVAC for just-in-time conditioning with micro-zones.
  • Landscape architects dedicated to closed-loop water designs, cascading rainwater to graywater to blackwater back to local aquifers, while supporting local food production.
  • Planners dedicated to “no new land,” to mixed-use zoning, and to landscape ecologies as critical to sustaining community and the environment.

The design masters of environmental surfing will preserve, cascade, and regenerate nature’s abundant resources for sheer delight, create technologies that mimic nature and regenerate without waste, and reduce the technologies that cut us off from the environment. The architecture produced by environmental surfing will celebrate the time of day, the seasons, and the culture that is unique to each community and to nature’s boundless creative energies.

Vivian Loftness
Denise Nestor Vivian Loftness

Vivian Loftness, FAIA, is an internationally renowned researcher, author, and educator focused on environmental design and sustainability, climate, and regionalism in architecture, and the integration of advanced building systems for health and productivity.