July 29, 2004

Guy Battle: design and build to suit your climate

  • The British engineer and architect says wind towers and rain collection make sense for the Northwest.
    Special to the Journal

     University of Luanda in Angola
    Rendering courtesy Perkins & Will
    Z-shaped “blades” create giant sun shades over the buildings and courtyards at the University of Luanda in Angola.

    Consulting engineer and landscape architect Guy Battle has established a global reputation for innovation, particularly in creating green projects that reduce operating costs and enhance employees' productivity.

    Battle's firm, Battle McCarthy Ltd., has worked with major architects throughout the world, including Perkins & Will in Chicago, to add its unusual multidisciplinary insights to projects as diverse as the wind-cooled University of Luanda in Angola to the new green Los Angeles Federal Courthouse and the planned Freedom Tower at Ground Zero in New York City with its wind-generated energy system.

    A recent conference speaker at programs in the Seattle area, at Washington State University and in Oregon, Battle offered some of his views on sustainable building architecture and engineering in a telephone interview from his London office.

    Battle has a long list of construction projects that have been surprisingly creative and successful because their designs have integrated architectural as well as engineering principles.

    "We don't innovate just for the sake of it. We try not to use our clients as guinea pigs," Battle said. "Most of (the ideas for) my work have been done before somewhere, at some time. We've taken old technologies and made them new. It's not so much the things we do as the attitude we bring to it.

    ‘We think naturally about each project, using fundamental physics as the starting point...’

    -- Guy Battle,

    Battle McCarthy

    "We think naturally about each project, using fundamental physics as the starting point, and come up with appropriate solutions. There is no single right solution. What we do on one project is not necessarily linked to any past project."

    In Angola, for instance, a project Battle detailed at his conference in Seattle, plans for the new University of Luanda called for developing 4 million square feet of buildings in a hot, humid climate. With no funds to install and operate an air-conditioning system, the university asked Battle McCarthy for alternatives.

    Working with Chicago architect Perkins & Will, the firm studied the site and then determined that the buildings could accomplish their own air-conditioning by being oriented to the prevailing winds to carry heat away from the structures, and by roof-mounted "blades" of light-gauge steel in a Z-shaped profile that would create giant sun-shades over buildings and courtyards.

    The first stage of the university development is under construction and the design of the second stage is nearly ready to begin.

    "There is a strong wind from the southwest in Angola so by funneling wind between and through the buildings, and shading the structures from the sun, we developed a design that created architecturally pleasing designs for buildings that depend totally on wind and solar sources for their cooling energy," he said, noting the importance of understanding physics, weather and geographic siting in finding solutions for complex projects.

    The firm's innovations are reflected in a variety of other projects, including the new Los Angeles Federal Courthouse. Battle McCarthy developed the structure as a self-sustaining building, with public spaces on the warm south side and air intake on the cool, landscaped north side that recirculates through the building.

    A buried labyrinth and vertical earth tube will provide free cooling for most of the year.

    For Endesa, Spain's largest power company, in Madrid, the company took advantage of the site's desert climate, with temperatures ranging from 45 to 110 degrees daily. Large sheets of temperature-sensitive materials in the un-cooled atrium areas absorb each night's cold air for release during the day. Earth tube cooling is also used in Madrid, along with photovoltaic energy cells that make it one of Endesa's power generators.

    And in New York City, the 1,776-foot-tall Freedom Tower on the World Trade Center site will house the world's first vertical wind-farm, integrated into the building to provide 1 megawatt of power, about 20 percent of the structure's energy needs. Being built as a part of the building, the structure housing the wind-turbine blades increases prevailing wind speeds by 30 percent.

    "One message I want to get out to the people in the states is that just as the University of Angola has a unique climate to consider, so does every region and town in the country, down to micro-climates. Wind towers and rain collection are just two of the environmental things that make a lot of sense for designing in the Northwest," he said.

    His message to Americans emphasizes the importance of taking environmental design seriously, something he said this country doesn't normally do.

    About 75 percent of the projects in this country are built with no consideration at all of environmental factors, he said. Companies are also losing opportunities to improve employee productivity, "Even more than saving on lighting, cooling, etc., there is a great bottom-line impact when employees are comfortable in their surroundings."

    In recent years, he's seen a dramatic growth in environmental awareness in building designs in the United States, however, which is one reason his firm is working on so many projects here, he said.

    Quoted in a recent article in Better Bricks magazine during a visit to Portland, Battle said "the best thing you can do in a project is to have (engineers) sit down with an architect and sketch for three or four hours together ... you just can't beat that feeling, because it's the whole essence of giving birth to a design ... engineers have a enormous amount to contribute to architecture."


    Terry Stephens is a freelance writer based in Arlington. He can be reached by e-mail at

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