sustainable design + ancient architecture

So, this is a bit different from our standard post, but we thought those interested in architectural history might also have an interest in how vernacular, or locally-based anicent design techniques have been implemented into today’s designs to promote energy efficiency.  If you are thinking TLDR; don’t worry, we’ll get back to our normal programming next week.

Sustainable design modern examples

Sustainable Design is Stunning Design

Recent studies have projected that we will experience extreme temperatures in many parts of the world within the next 50 years. That, coupled with the ongoing depletion of energy resources means that alternative cooling options need to be explored and implemented sooner rather than later. Buildings use 65% of the electricity consumed in the United States, and nearly 40% of primary energy use, a large portion of which is used for heating and cooling. Clearly this is an area of design that needs to be considered. But energy efficiency is only one part of sustainability. Another is reduced waste so for something to be truly sustainable it must also be long lasting. It may not be surprising that the architects who are currently successful at marrying the two are also utilizing energy efficiency practices, specifically passive cooling, that were derived from methods used by ancient civilizations. These passive cooling methods include perforated screens, central courtyards with water pools, wind towers and living roofs. Three distinguished examples of sustainable design enhanced by aesthetic design are the Pearl Institute of Fashion, the Zion Visitor Center and the California Academy of Sciences.

Pearl Institute of Fashion

Pearl Institute of Fashion, Jaipur, India

The Pearl Institute of Fashion is located in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India. It sits at the edge of the Thar desert, making the climate hot and arid most of the year, with temperatures as high as 113 degrees, and extremely wet and humid during the monsoon season. The project benefactors wanted energy savings while also creating an environment that fostered creative learning. Morphogenesis, the architecture firm leading the project, responded by studying and eventually incorporating ancient Indo-Islamic cooling and water capture techniques into the final design. Interestingly, it is those cooling features, specifically perforated screens, an open courtyard and step-wells that provided a base to fulfill the other requirement – an inspiring building that would inspire those who use it.

Sustainable design - jaali
The internal structure of the modern jaali, [top] the ancient version [bottom].
The decorative façade of the main structure is based on the ancient perforated screen called a “jaali” in Hindi and is actually designed to promote cooling. The jaali, which sits 4 feet away from the main body of the building, acts as a thermal buffer, absorbing much of the direct heat while allowing diffused sunlight into the interior. The small holes also increase the intensity of air flow, creating a secondary cooling effect.  Jaali were common in ancient Indo-Islamic structures and are still very common today. In ancient times, jaali were used to cover windows, providing a view to the outside while protecting the inhabitants from direct sun.










Sustainable design courtyard with baori
Courtyard “baori” of Pearl Institute of Fashion

At the center of the structure is an open courtyard that steps down to a pool of water. This design is based on the ancient step-well or “baori.”  A baori is a body of water located at the bottom of a series of steps. The earliest baori date back to 550 CE.  They were used for water capture that could then be used for drinking and bathing. This use is no longer sanitary, but the design allows for water capture that is then used for irrigation, water treatment and to add humidity to the air, creating a unique microclimate throughout the site.





The last sustainable design element that ties all others together is that the entire building is stilted.  Lifting the structure off the ground provides for maximum ventilation as wind flows around the buildings (see wind flow diagram below).

Section cut of Pearl Institute of Fashion

The architects used computer modeling to determine the most advantageous placement of the building to optimize wind flows. This is a common building method in many ancient cultures, particularly the Batak houses in Indonesia. The wind comes into the center of the structure, hits the baori in the central courtyard and creates the feel of cooler, more humid air throughout the space. This method, called evaporative cooling, comes directly from the ancient Islamic riad.

All of the cooling elements combine to create a 100% self-sufficient irrigation, water treatment and cooling system that is both comfortable to its inhabitants and also attractive to view. The jaali screen design alternates between diamond-shaped perforations and completely open rectangles which are then placed in a waterfall pattern. Behind the perforation, the building is painted a warm yellow-orange. The color shows through the perforations as do the shadows created by the spaces, creating a unique effect visible from both the exterior and interior of the building. The step-down elements add additional seating and conversation areas around the cooler temperatures of the baori, which in turn create attractive reflections of the building and light above.

Zion National Park Visitor Center, Utah

Zion Visitor Center. Zion National Park, Utah, USA.
Zion Visitor Center. Zion National Park, Utah, USA.

The Zion National Park Visitor Center is also located in a harsh environment. The Southern Utah desert has extreme daytime temperatures, extreme nighttime temperatures and very little precipitation. This is very similar to the climate in the Middle East when many ancient cooling techniques were developed. The National Park Service architects wanted to create a building that not only respected the area by blending into it, but also respected the area by creating a small ecological footprint. The National Park Service architects looked to several ancient cooling techniques used by native American tribes and also in ancient Egypt: clerestory windows, cooling towers and passive ventilation. And again, it was these features that ended up fulfilling the aesthetic design objective, to create a building that fit into the natural environment rather than try to compete with it.

Clerestory windows at the Temple of Karnak

Clerestory windows are small windows, often either square or longer than they are tall, that are located close to the ceiling of a room. They allow light into the space while blocking the most direct sunlight during the heat of the day. They have been used as early at the Karnak Temple in Egypt, as seen in the photo on the right








A slightly slanted roof houses the Zion Center clerestory windows, providing an attractive architectural feature in the otherwise basic roof.

The specific size and location of the clerestory windows was determined using computer modeling. The modeling anticipated the angle and location of the sun at different times of year so the design of the clerestory windows would optimize the light entering the space during the winter and minimize the light during the summer.  This is illustrated in the following diagram.

Sustainable design clerestory windows
Clerestory window venting and heating diagram
Section cut of cliff-dwelling design

This building method is based on the step-houses made by Native American cliff dwelling tribes, such as the Navajo and Anasazi who lived in New Mexico and Arizona. Cliff dwellers lived in the extreme climate very similar to that of Zion. These ancient builders dug their dwellings into the cliff so that an overhang would shade the structure and provide cooling during the summer and provide maximum light and heat in the winter. The drawing on the right shows how closely related the design used by Zion architects is to the ancient designs of the cliff dwellers.







The most dramatic architectural features of the building are the two tall cooling towers that rise above the rest of the structure. Cooling towers, also referred to as windcatchers, or “malqaf” in Persian, have been used for the past 2,000 years. Wind towers cool by directing air down the shaft and onto passive “cooling pads.” The cool air then pushes into the main interior of the building. The diagram below shows how the hot air enters the tower, moves through the cooling pad and then goes back into the room as cool air.

Sustainable design passive cooling system

While the focus of the design of the Zion Visitor Center was to showcase passive cooling methods in a government building, it is successful because it is an attractive structure.  Two of the key elements that make the building interesting are those connected to the cooling features. First, the angled roof that accommodates the clerestory windows. This helps to add visual interest to the top of the building while the windows themselves create interesting ambient light inside. Next are the grand cooling towers.  They are covered in rusticated brick which mimics in color, texture and verticality the cliffs that rise above the area.  Both work together to provide a sense of belonging for the building and the people who inhabit it.

California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, California

California Academy of Sciences San Francisco, California Architect: Renzo Piano Building Workshop
California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, California Architect: Renzo Piano Building Workshop

Unlike the Pearl Institute and Zion Visitor Center, the California Academy of Sciences building is located in San Francisco,California, a much more temperate climate. Therefore, the passive cooling methods can rely less on creating humidity and cold air and more on maintaining a stable interior temperature. The system also helps to create an interior microclimate for the rainforest exhibit that features tropical plants, insects and reptiles. Renzo Piano was selected as the architect to build a replacement for the buildings that were damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. He was charged with creating a new structure that followed the museum’s mission, “to explore, explain, and protect the natural world.” Protecting the natural world meant exploring alternative heating and cooling methods for the structure.  The final design included a “living roof” made up of seven grassy hills lined with 50,000 porous, biodegradable vegetation trays made of tree sap and coconut husks. In addition to contributing to climate control, the roof is also instrumental in collecting 100% of rainwater, an important component for keeping the oceans clean. And, much like the Pearl Institute and Zion Visitor Center, it is this design element has also become the premier feature of the project.

Traditional sod house
Traditional sod house

Finding direct evidence of green roofs from ancient times is challenging because many ancient structures are found buried beneath the civilizations of later cultures so any greenery has long since disintegrated into the earth. The fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon date back to 600 BCE and Greek, Roman and Assyrian texts also make mention of the rooftop gardens. It is likely that they were common during ancient times. Sod roofs became common in Scandinavia as far back as Viking times, around 700 CE. These cultures used sod roofs to provide insulation against cold air in the winter and to help absorb rainwater. The photo to the right is a reconstruction of a turf house in Iceland and looks very similar to Piano’s version atop the Academy of Sciences.





Sustainable design solar canopy
California Academy of Sciences solar canopy

While the living roof is one of the primary cooling features of the building, it is also covered in a perforated screen.  This provides all of the benefits of the screens at the Pearl Institute, although it does not need to act as a skin on the building since extreme heat is not an issue in this climate.

Much like the Pearl Institute and the Zion Visitor Center, the beauty in the design is the way the structure blends into its natural environment. The rolling green hills that cap the top of the building mimic the hills of San Francisco so although the rest of the structure is very modern, the greenery on the roof enables it to blend into the trees and hills that surround it. The greenery also attracts colorful birds and insects, adding to the overall aesthetic of the site. This is certainly a building designed to be enjoyed for many generations.

 In Conclusion

The responsibility to curb climate change is two-fold. First, we must do what we can to mitigate future harm to the planet. This can be accomplished through smart building and design. We must also keep in mind that the irreparable damage that has already been done is likely to result in higher temperatures for more days in more places. Buildings will need to provide additional cooling if they are to be effective. Clearly, looking back at cultures that did not enjoy the benefits of the Industrial Revolution is a good place to start, although it is also advances in modern technology that allow these ancient techniques to still be practical solutions.

But true comfort goes beyond temperature, it is the perception that a space belongs in its surrounding environment. Ancient cultures did not have the benefit of widespread travel and only experienced limited trade. This means that their vernacular building techniques naturally complemented their surroundings, a design methodology current architects can benefit from adopting


Though we looked at only a few examples, these amazing designs prove that expanding this practice will not only allow people to live comfortably and sustainably, but will also result in more visually pleasing structures enabling humans to adjust to the effects of climate change and dwindling energy resources while enhancing aesthetic design.



  1. Shaheen, Kareem.  “Extreme heatwaves could push Gulf climate beyond human endurance, study shows” 26 October 2015.  The Guardian.  Accessed on 27 Nov 2015.  <>. Web.
  2. National Park Service. Zion National Park Visitor Center: A Sustainable Building for the Future.  Washington D.C.: National Park Service, 2015. Print.
  3. Lechner, Norbert. Heating, Cooling, Lighting: Sustainable Design Methods for Architects. 4th ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2015. Print.

Resource Materials

Glass, Nick, and George Webster. “Ancient ‘air-conditioning’ cools sustainably” 8 Mar 2012.  CNN.  Accessed on 17 Nov 2015.  <>.  Web.

Gonchar, Joann, AIA. “CASE STUDY: California Academy of Sciences.” California Academy of Sciences, Renzo Piano Building Workshop In Collaboration With Stantec. Greensource Magazine, Mar. 2009.  Print.

Holloway, Dennis R., “A Simple Design Methodology For Passive Solar Houses: with a Brief History of Solar Energy Utilization in the Built Environment.” 2011. Accessed on 10 Dec 2015. <>. Web.

McLennan, Jason F. The Philosophy of Sustainable Design: The Future of Architecture. Kansas City, MO: Ecotone, 2004. Print.

Small, Zachary. “The Green Roof: How Ancient Architecture Shaped Modern Sustainable Design.” Hopes&Fears. 07 Aug. 2015. Accessed on: 09 Dec. 2015. <>. Web.

Torcellini, P., R. Judkoff, and S. Hayter. Zion National Park Visitor Center: Significant Energy Savings Achieved through a Whole-Building Design Process. Tech. Golden: NREL and NPA, 2002. Print.

“Ancient Stepwells of India.” Atlas Obscura. Accessed on: 08 Dec. 2015. <>.  Web.

“Green roof.” Wikipedia.  Accessed on 10 Dec. 2015.  <>. Web.

“Jali.” Wikipedia.  Accessed on: 17 Nov. 2015. <>.  Web.

“Morphogenesis. Selected Works, Institutional.” Dehli: Morphogenesis, 2015. Print.

“Our Green Building.”  California Academy of Sciences. Accessed on 9 Dec 2015.  <>. Web.

“Pearl Academy of Fashion/Morphogenesis” 13 Nov 2009. ArchDaily. Accessed on: 20 Nov 2015.  <>.  Web.

“Stepwell.”  Wikipedia.  Accessed on: 18 Nov. 2015.  <>.  Web.

Photo Credits

The Pearl Institute of Fashion – All photos and diagrams by Morphogenesis.
Zion Visitor Center – QT Luong
Temple of Karnak – Millmore
Modern sun angle diagram –
Cliff dwelling sun angle diagram – Kate Sheets
Wind flow diagram – NERL & NPA
California Academy of Sciences – SF Recreation & Parks Department
California Academy of Sciences – California Academy of Sciences
Traditional sod house – Arild Vågen

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