Bjarke Ingels is a “Starchitect,” an international superstar architect. He is also a great storyteller and perhaps this is why he has risen to such prominence in recent years. People love stories.

Arguably, it is the narrative that people give to buildings that elevate them to “Architecture.” The trouble I have with most “Starchitecture” is that the narrative often appears to be whimsical, egocentric and divorced from environmental context.

Bjarke Ingels is a different kind of “Starchitect.” He offers a narrative where architecture embraces environmental context. His term for this is “Vernacular 2.0.”

Vernacular architecture arises out of a direct response to the climate it inhabits and the resources available locally. And this is exactly what the Passivhaus Standard aims to ensure in a contemporary context.

So what would happen if the two were combined? Can you imagine an architecture where the “Hedonistic Sustainability” of the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) delivered the radical energy efficiency and exceptional comfort of the Passivhaus Standard?*

I can.

The combination of Bjarke Ingels + Passivhaus, to my mind, truly would be a “Vernacular 2.0.”

025 Bjarke Ingels Passivhaus Vernacular

“Sustainability … doesn’t have to be a compromise”

Among “starchitects,” Bjarke Ingles has a unique approach to sustainable design. He doesn’t see sustainability as something to add to architecture, potentially compromising the design. Instead, he speaks of constraints as opportunities for creativity. He explores how sustainability informs the design and generates the aesthetics.

…sustainability doesn’t have to be some kind of a compromise — it can even be the element that drives the aesthetics. It can create its own language if you find ways of using the forces of the environment to produce shapes or forms. [Source]

Bjarke Ingels goes even further than this though, with his idea of “Hedonistic Sustainability.”

Hedonistic sustainability is the idea that you can actually be sustainable but increase the quality of life while doing so. [Source]

This is a good way to give a bit more juice to the otherwise dry and uninteresting word “sustainability.” It also makes an important point that is often poorly communicated or poorly understood. That is, authentic sustainable design enhances and improves people’s lives and makes a positive contribution to the planet. Too often, sustainability is seen as some kind of ‘environmental austerity measure’ that everyone must suffer for some notional greater good.

I’m with Bjarke Ingels: Sustainability is a creative opportunity to shape design and increase the quality of life.

From Vernacular to Passivhaus

Vernacular architecture arises directly from the local climate and available resources. Traditionally, this was a matter of needs and available means rather than a conscious design choice.

Vernacular architecture is a category of architecture based on local needs, construction materials and reflecting local traditions.

It tends to evolve over time to reflect the environmental, cultural, technological, economic, and historical context in which it exists. [Source]

For these reasons, vernacular architecture is based on passive design principles. Orientation, window opening sizes, building form and shape were all derived from the need to benefit from daylight, solar gain, shading, prevailing winds, structural capacity of materials etc., without resorting to a reliance on imported energy. These driving forces lost their influence over architecture once we entered the age of cheap energy that we still enjoy now. (Although perhaps not for many more years?)

The Passivhaus Standard has its origins in research work carried out by Bo Adamson and Wolfgang Feist. Much of Bo Adamson’s research was concerned with vernacular buildings where no heating or active cooling is required due to the design. Many lessons from this carry forward to the Passivhaus Standard as it is today. (You can read more about the history of Passivhaus here.)

Now, in the anthropocene, architecture urgently needs to re-establish the relationship with the local climate that vernacular architecture had. And this is what the Passivhaus Standard does. However, while the Passivhaus Standard is re-introducing these driving forces to contemporary architecture through the Passive House Planning Package, it also marries them with the latest research knowledge and useful contemporary technology. Contemporary Passivhaus architecture need not look like traditional vernacular architecture.

The Passivhaus combination of climate-specific requirements and contemporary technology bear a striking resemblance to Bjarke Ingels’ term “Vernacular 2.0.”

“Engineering without Engines,” isn’t that Passivhaus?

The Passivhaus Standard requires an integrated approach to design so that the architecture performs by design. The orientation, the form and massing, the elevations, the construction details, all of these elements play important roles in determining the building performance. The Passivhaus Standard goes far enough such that the architecture performs by design with less building services. Less heating for example. Compare this to how Bjarke Ingles describes “Vernacular 2.0”:

Today, we have sophisticated technology. We can model, calculate and simulate the environmental performance of a building. We can predict how the sun will hit the different surfaces of the building. We can predict how air is going to flow between different structures. As an architect, I don’t like the idea of architecture without architects! But what we’re talking about is engineering without engines. You can use sophisticated engineering and tech to make the building independent of all the engines and machinery that go into the plant room, to find ways of responding, with the design of the building, to the context it’s in. [Source]

BIG are certainly embracing an integrated approach to design, including environmental analysis. The question is: does the “Vernacular 2.0” architecture of BIG live up to it’s promises? Is it really “without Engines”?

Although I haven’t visited any buildings designed by BIG yet, my impression from published information is that they certainly do increase the quality of life in many ways. However, Bjarke Ingles mentions reducing “energy consumption for air conditioning by 30%” with reference to a building in Shenzhen. While this is very a good start, it’s not radical enough to really describe as “without Engines.”

Passivhaus Architecture reduces energy consumption by 75 – 90%, by design, this is “Engineering without Engines.”

Dear Bjarke Ingels

You are right, “Vernacular 2.0” is the kind of architecture the world needs in the Anthropocene. However, to truly be “Vernacular 2.0,” architecture must go beyond good intentions. And in addition to enhancing the quality of life, architecture in the Anthropocene must deliver radical energy efficiency and exceptional occupant comfort, as Passivhaus architecture does.

I hope you read and enjoy this blog post. More importantly though, I hope you will take action. I hope BIG will embrace Passivhaus as a foundation for your exuberant creativity and hedonistic sustainability. I hope you embrace Passivhaus as a means to ensure your architecture performs exceptionally well, just as you design it to.

Passivhaus and the Passive House Planning Package (PHPP) are tools that can ensure “Vernacular 2.0” lives up to its promise.

I look forward to seeing where your architecture takes Passivhaus.

Best wishes, Elrond Burrell

Are you a fan of Bjarke Ingels and BIG, and would you like to see them deliver buildings that are both hedonistically sustainable and certified to the Passivhaus Standard? Please tweet Bjarke Ingels to encourage him embrace Passivhaus.

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* To the best of my knowledge, at the time of publishing this, BIG have not delivered a building to the Passivhaus Standard. At least two BIG projects have been designed with the intention of meeting the Passivhaus Standard, the World Village of Women Sports [If that link is broken you can see the project here, but there is no mention of Passivhaus in this article] and Kaufhauskanal Metrozone, but neither projects have been realised.

5 thoughts on “Bjarke Ingels + Passivhaus = Vernacular 2.0

  1. Elrond,

    Nice blog enjoyed reading it. I like the vernacular 2 concept, which is the best BIG document to read?
    Nice bit of digital promotion for yourself if you hit it BIG fishing.

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