Innovative solutions for public spaces in a warming world


Vikram Murthy, AHRI India Representative shares idyllic examples of architectural wonders to achieve maximum thermal comfort in public spaces naturally.

As global temperatures continue to rise, the significance of ensuring thermal comfort in public spaces cannot be overstated. Even in cities like Mumbai, the combination of high humidity and heat can make environmental conditions less than ideal. Human comfort is influenced by various environmental factors, with air temperature and radiant temperature being crucial components. Sitting near a large, sun-facing surface during the summer, you’ll experience discomfort, even if the air conditioning is functioning efficiently. The radiant heat from that surface can make the environment feel warmer. Factors such as humidity and air movement also play a significant role in determining comfort levels.

Balancing temperature and humidity

Consider a day in Mumbai with a temperature of 32 degrees Celsius and a wet bulb temperature of 28 degrees Celsius;. In contrast, the air temperature may not seem excessively hot, the high humidity levels make it uncomfortable. The psychometric chart reveals that we are dealing with a humid environment, prompting the need for air conditioning to maintain comfort. This scenario underscores the importance of understanding external conditions throughout the year to design effective solutions that minimise energy consumption.

Recommendations for Comfort

Organisations like the CPWD (Central Public Works Department) and the Bureau of Energy Efficiency provide guidelines to maintain comfort in public spaces. These guidelines suggest keeping indoor temperatures around 24 degrees Celsius, although this can be adjusted to 30 degrees when using fans and with lower humidity. Recognising varying comfort levels, from air-conditioned spaces to fan-cooled areas, is essential. Public spaces should cater to diverse preferences and comfort requirements.

Architectural brilliance in addressing thermal comfort

Historically, ingenious methods were employed to cool public spaces. Large fountains were fed by water from nearby lakes, and the process of evaporative cooling was harnessed to lower the temperature. The iconic Taj Mahal’s radiant cooling features and the cooling effect of its massive marble structure are a testament to architectural brilliance in addressing thermal comfort.

The Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur exemplifies sustainable cooling through its district cooling system. This system efficiently cools lecture halls, labs, and libraries, using a fountain as a heat exchanger. Such approaches serve as models for achieving thermal comfort while minimising energy consumption.

The Chatrapati Shivaji Terminal 2 airport in Mumbai, designed with the inspiration of a peacock, offers a comfortable experience for travellers. Its large thermal mass, reflective surfaces, and efficient displacement ventilation keep the indoor environment pleasant.

In Delhi, the beautiful Lotus Temple is a testament to innovative design for thermal comfort. The building’s unique construction and use of materials ensure that it remains cool in summer and warm in winter. The surrounding water features and radiant cooling further enhance the overall comfort for visitors.

One another striking example is a repurposed church in the Netherlands. This large church, now serving as a public library, showcases an ingenious approach to thermal comfort. The key to its success is the church’s substantial thermal mass, effectively preventing excessive heat or cold from penetrating the space. Additionally, displacement ventilation, which cools the lower part of the room, minimises the energy required for cooling.

Museums in various parts of the world have also embraced innovative designs to maintain thermal comfort. In China, a museum with few openings to the outside relies on thick walls and well-planned shading to keep the space comfortable throughout the year. The use of thermal mass and the strategic placement of windows contribute to a museum’s success as a thermally comfortable public space.

Even libraries can be designed to offer thermal comfort without excessive energy consumption. A library in Seattle with a large amount of glass strategically angles its windows to admit light without direct sunlight, maintaining a pleasant environment for patrons.

The energy challenge

Driven by its burgeoning population, India’s energy consumption is growing rapidly. Nevertheless, per capita electricity consumption remains relatively low due to a small portion of the population accounting for most energy consumption, particularly for comfort and industrial processes. Given this scenario, a strategic shift towards energy conservation is imperative.

To address the energy challenge, public spaces should embrace sustainable design principles. Indirect evaporative, radiant, and innovative cooling structures can help maintain thermal comfort without excessive energy usage. Radiant cooling, in particular, is emerging as a promising solution for cooling large public spaces efficiently.

Displacement ventilation and chilled beams offer alternatives that divide air conditioning between sensible and latent components, increasing energy efficiency. These technologies are gaining popularity in various applications, including industrial settings.

Inclusive comfort

As the world grapples with rising temperatures, ensuring thermal comfort for all, irrespective of income or access to air conditioning, is crucial. The disparity between the privileged few with air-conditioned homes and offices and the rest who endure stifling conditions is evident. As the wet bulb temperature rises, staying comfortable through evaporative cooling becomes increasingly challenging.

The importance of creating thermally comfortable public spaces cannot be emphasised enough. By integrating sustainable design practices, considering various environmental factors, and embracing innovative cooling technologies, we can create environments where people can thrive despite changing climate conditions. As we move forward, prioritising thermal comfort in public spaces is not only a matter of luxury but a necessity for the well-being of all citizens.

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