The humble teapot is a worthy example of what I call “vernacular
design”. You would have heard of vernacular architecture, which is building
design that has evolved over time based on local culture, climate and resources,
but vernacular design is a broader concept that includes the design of clothing,
furniture, equipment and teapots etc.

Teapots date back to 16th century China – they
were initially made of iron but over time they became fashioned from clay and then
from porcelain. The shape of the teapot has changed very little over time, the
key components being a solid base, good pouring spout, high-insulating
material, and a well-fitting lid to allow the tea and water to be easily added.
The “brown betty”, the iconic English teapot, optimises great vernacular and
timeless design for me.

Chinese iron, brown
betty and stainless steel teapots

So why is it that when I venture out for afternoon tea I am often
presented with a misshapen stainless steel teapot that has a poorly-fitting lid
and is made from material that can’t retain heat (so my tea is cold by the
second cup) plus is furnished with a spout that dribbles tea all over the
saucer and table? The answer is simple, such a teapot is mass produced, it is cheap
and easy to construct, and it kind of works and looks good when it is brand new.
And that exactly reflects the situation with most of today’s air-conditioned speculative
buildings. Post Occupancy Evaluations (POE) show that temperature control and air
quality are two of the main causes of dissatisfaction in modern offices. I think
it basically comes down to replacing good vernacular design with low risk, low
cost options that ignore local requirements, which have evolved from a millennia
of cultural development and climatic conditions.

I have taken issue with the standard of air-conditioned
office for some time, ever since my Doctorate proved that we Brits prefer
naturally ventilated spaces with good temperature control. The temperatures in
UK offices in summer are dictated by international standards which still recommend
set-point temperatures of 22 to 24 degree Celsius for those wearing suits and carrying
out sedentary activity. So maybe the cultural norm of wearing suits (and ties) on
days when the outside temperature indicates that lighter attire may be more comfortable
is partly responsible for the increased perceived need for air-conditioned
offices.

So let’s consider the suit for a moment. Apparently, the notion of tailoring
developed in Europe gradually between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. By
King Louis XIV’s reign, the 17th century, men had stopped wearing
the doublet, hose, and cloak and started to wear coats, vests, and breeches i.e.
the three components of modern male attire. By the start of the 19th
century the upper classes were dressing in a more restrained manner similar to
the masses. The suit was born out of tailoring to accentuate the male physique and
be less flamboyant than earlier European clothing trends. Thus the suit is a
fashion item rather than developed out of need, which is quite different to
traditional clothing – and don’t get me on to that superfluous piece of cloth
called the tie.

There are many examples of where vernacular architecture and
clothing design symbiotically support the local culture and climate. At one climatic
extreme, we have the Inuit people who replace their waterproof sealskin boots,
dense polar bear parkas and igloos in winter with soft elk robes, buffalo moccasins
and their tupiq tent in summer. In contrast, Arabic clothing includes long
flowing robes (the thobe or dishdasha) which create a pumping action with
movement to cool the body. Arabic buildings have wind catchers – tall towers
that divert cool air to the building whilst pushing out warm air using the
stack effect. Thick walls, shadowed courtyards and landscaping all help keep
the occupants cool by natural and passive means.

Japan provides some of my favourite examples of clothing and
building design working well together. On my last trip there I stayed in a ryokan,
a traditional Japanese inn, were the minimalist room simply had tatami mat
flooring, a foldaway futon and a kotatsu, which is a low wooden table with an underneath
heat source. There is no central heating system in traditional Japanese accommodation,
so in bygone years the occupant would sit in their robe (either a light yukata or
a heavier kimono) and pin the corners of the robe to the table so that they
received a direct gust of warm air – highly localised rather than central heating.

A few years ago the Japanese Government introduced the concept
of Cool Biz into the workplace. In Japan’s hot summer months, offices are highly
air-conditioned to cool the very formally dressed office workers. The idea of
Cool Biz was to encourage office works to dress down, and for it to become
culturally acceptable, so that set-point (thermostat) temperatures in building
could be raised in summer thus saving energy and reducing carbon emissions. The
campaign was a success and has continued with significant carbon savings year
on year. So let’s ditch the suit in the UK and encourage developers to build
more naturally ventilated offices.

The Quadrant – Network
Rail’s new HQ

I have just completed a POE of the Quadrant, Network Rail’s
new headquarters in Milton Keynes. One of the key success factors of the Quadrant
is that it is naturally ventilated (albeit by automated window opening). The
staff like the freshness of the air quality, the links to the outside world and
even that the papers on their desk gently rustle in a summer breeze. The
natural ventilation, ample food/drink stations and good daylight in the
Quadrant all cater for our evolutionary psychological needs – one of my pet
subjects referred to in my previous blogs and papers.
But more significantly, the Quadrant occupants appear more tolerant of the occasional
hot day in return for the other benefits on offer. Naturally ventilated spaces are
traditionally the domain of the small shallow-plan bespoke office, so in their substantial
400,000 sq ft office has Network Rail shown us a viable alternative to the generic
air-conditioned box so often offered by real estate developers?