Holcim Foundation


Building climate: From mechanical to material

Reconnecting energy and climate to architectural design

Buildings consume energy in two main ways. Firstly, through their use of building materials and the energy required for the construction process, and secondly through the operation of the building. A large (and growing) contributor to this skyrocketing energy demand is the rapid growth and reliance on mechanical air-conditioning.

By Arno Schlueter

Before fossil fuels transformed the design of indoor environments, architects and builders had to rely on passive means of sustaining comfort, even in harsh outdoor environments. These design-led responses included massive walls made from earthen materials with small openings to keep out heat or cold; bodies of water to provide evaporative cooling in hot and dry locations; light walls with openings for passive ventilation in hot and humid regions; and double-windows and anterooms to create an air buffer in cold locales.

MaterialsBook-106a.jpgKnow how materials perform

Although energy demand can be reduced by optimizing mechanical air-conditioning, this typically comes with increased cost and added complexity – making them challenging to plan, build, and operate. Rethinking materials and their performative capacities opens up an alternative route. Building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) can transform buildings towards carbon neutrality.

These new surface treatments open up fresh options for architectural design and construction. A deeper understanding of how the physical properties of building materials can be leveraged for environmental control and energy conservation. Digital design and fabrication represent a fundamental shift in both design and process since they allow joint control over form, material choice, aggregation, geometry, and the surface of building elements.

IUCN03.jpgSelecting materials based on function and form

As an integrated element of design, functional capacities such as heat transfer and storage, air permeability, humidity absorption, and evaporation can be factored into design and material selection for envelopes, walls, floors, ceilings – providing a bespoke response to “place” and the building’s climatic and architectural context.

Functionally integrated building elements reduce reliance on complex mechanical systems. Building elements take on additional roles: walls can act as heat exchangers, façades can generate energy or regulate airflow, and columns can conduct electricity. The next generation of building systems reduce complexity, emissions and costs – and reconnect aspects of energy and climate to architectural design.

Re-materializing Construction

This text is based on the paper Building climate: From mechanical to material presented by Arno Schlueter at the LafargeHolcim Forum “Re-materializing Construction” held at the American University in Cairo, Egypt.

Building climate: From mechanical to material

Inspired by the discussions by 350 leading thinkers from architecture, engineering, planning, and the construction industry from 55 countries, Ruby Press Berlin has published The Materials Book that evaluates current architectural practices and models, and introduces materials and methods to maximize the environmental, social, and economic performance of the built environment in the context of “Re-materializing Construction”.

The Materials Book: Re-materializing Construction – Cairo (Ruby Press)

Last Updated: December 04, 2020
Article Details
Zurich, Switzerland
Related Information
Related People
Arno Schlueter
Arno Schlueter

Arno Schlueter is Full Professor of Architecture & Building Systems (A/S), Institute of Technology in Architecture (ITA), ETH Zurich and a...

Holcim Foundation

Search Help

Our website search engine covers the web pages including project descriptions and expert profiles, PDFs, images and videos on the Holcim Foundation website. To improve your search results, here are some tips:

Basic search

Our search defaults to term-pairing AND. If you search sustainable construction - then the search engine will look for any items containing sustainable AND construction


photovoltaic OR solar

Looks for either word


(clay OR mud) AND (school OR university)

Combine alternative terms for more specific searching


geothermal -heating

Excludes a term from results, automatically ANDs other terms listed


"zero carbon"

Use quotation marks to search for a specific phrase or combination

Wildcards (one or more characters)


Asterisk (*) matches any word or phrase - so archit* will find architect, architecture, architectural as well as architrave