As the cost of energy increases and the need for more efficient ways to heat and cool buildings becomes paramount, green building practices are vital to long-term success. Although we regularly hear about things like solar collectors, advanced insulation types, and high-efficiency air conditioning units, the conversation is generally lacking in the most vital element of energy-efficient construction: building orientation. After all, you can use all the right materials and install all the right equipment, but if your building’s design is working against energy efficiency, you’re still fighting an uphill battle.
Why building orientation matters
In a vacuum, the way a structure is oriented would make absolutely no difference. The sun wouldn’t rise, the wind wouldn’t blow, all things would remain equal because the environment wouldn’t be influencing the building envelope. However, we do live in an environment, so when a new structure goes up, or an older one is added to, building orientation is really vital to the success of that building.
Setting up a structure to maximize passive solar heating in the winter, for example, goes a long way to not only accomplish green building goals, but also to keep the occupants of that building happier, healthier, and more comfortable. Properly designed buildings allow for the utilization of solar energy and minimize heat gain. This then reduces loads on climate-control equipment, which both minimizes the energy used by said equipment and can help extend its useful life. That’s no small thing, especially in larger structures like office buildings that may have banks of cooling units that require repair and maintenance.
And, frankly, when you go beyond the green energy aspects, building orientation matters because how that structure sits on the lot determines how appealing it is to potential buyers and tenants. Single-family homes that are turned oddly, with a side entry or the primary entry on the back of the house, can just feel off, but the same subtle, yet unsettling feeling is also present in apartments, office buildings, retail locations, industrial warehouses, and so forth. It all feeds back into curb appeal, which is a costly thing to ignore.
Balancing building orientation and practicality
Taking advantage of optimum orientation for things like passive solar design can work when you’re starting from scratch in a wholly empty development, but sometimes proper orientation has to be close enough, rather than ideal. Because nearby structures can affect how your building has to sit on an individual building lot, you’ll have to be clever when building, remodeling, or purchasing a structure without good orientation. Fortunately, there are ways to help smaller buildings cope with less-than-ideal building orientation.
For example, you can minimize solar gain by adding more trees or large bushes to a residential building or single-story multifamily property. Well-placed trees and bushes help block the summer sun while still leaving the property exposed to the solar radiation that’s available during the wintertime. Shading with extra-wide overhangs or awnings is another way to prevent direct sunlight from penetrating weak points in the structure, such as windows, which can be huge points of loss for both heating and cooling and cause for increased energy consumption.
Even a larger building's orientation that's less than perfect can take advantage of the shadows other buildings nearby cast throughout the day. While you can’t count on those structures always being there, utilizing this kind of shading on hot sides of the building, along with highly efficient windows and doors, will make a big difference to the interior climate and energy use over the longer term.
The Millionacres bottom line
Although building orientation may not seem like a big deal on the surface, it’s the key to everything green, as well as a lot of things that are aesthetic. If you’re interested in getting green building certifications (which can increase the value of your investment), for example, it’s paramount that your building’s orientation is optimized for the programs you're aiming for, like those meant to increase passive solar building practices.
Green certifications can be huge selling points in commercial buildings especially, due to the expenses and environmental impact involved in heating and cooling these structures. From the ground up, design can incorporate good natural ventilation and ideal solar orientation, where possible, or utilize existing assets like shading provided by other buildings. Drainage considerations can also be addressed with this approach.
When it comes to single family residential or multifamily structures, building orientation can affect the curb appeal of the structure as well as how comfortable it is to live in the building throughout the year. Tenants that are struggling with their utility bills don’t hang around long, creating high turnover; people looking to buy a house aren’t going to be willing to pay as much for a house that has a history of excessive utility expenses.