New professor of Building Services Innovation aims to put the invisible high on the agenda
Given that building services can cost you as much as €1,000 per square metre, having a proper plan beforehand is hardly a luxury. But installation plans are rarely seen as a top priority during design projects. The fact that most of the heating, ventilation and airconditioning systems will ultimately be hidden above the ceiling or concealed in the walls simply compounds the problem. ‘Yet they remain of essential importance long after a building is commissioned. The installations are actually what will determine the building’s indoor climate and overall energy performance,’ says Atze Boerstra. Since last year, the tide appears to be turning for installations in buildings: ‘There is an awful lot happening in the building services world at the moment.’
Boerstra has been Professor of Building Services Innovation in the TU Delft Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment since mid-March 2021. Boerstra studied Mechanical Engineering at TU Delft in the Refrigeration Engineering and Climate Control group. In 2016 he was awarded his doctorate at TU Eindhoven with a thesis on ‘Personal Control over Indoor Climate.’ Since 1996, he has also been managing director of bba binnenmilieu, an engineering consultancy firm in The Hague specialising in indoor air quality and thermal comfort.
Boerstra: ‘One of the conclusions of my doctoral research was that a building services design will only ‘work’ when you do not only approach it from the technical perspective, but put people first from the outset. If you have the end-user in mind from the start of your design, it always functions better. Not only in terms of health and comfort, but in terms of energy and environmental performance as well.’
In the past, the human dimension was rarely the starting point in the installation and design world, but that’s fortunately now changing, according to Boerstra. ‘The one size/one solution fits all approach is now fortunately becoming much less common in the building services world.’
Boerstra prefers to focus on issues that are on benefit to society. ‘I want to apply my brain to something of relevance that will make the world a little better. Currently, I spend a lot of time researching installations in long term care facilities, especially in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic. As a professor, I want to ensure that for example improving nursing homes moves further up the agenda. You often see building services solutions there that are either suboptimal or well-designed in principle, but not put to optimum use. For me as a specialist, this is difficult to explain and even harder to witness. Quite rightly, we focus a lot on optimising climate control systems and ventilation in offices and schools. Would it not make sense also to raise the bar in places where vulnerable groups of citizens spend all of their time cooped up together?’
According to Boerstra, there has traditionally been a clear division between the architectural world on the one hand and building services on the other. ‘The most sustainable and healthiest solutions usually come about if you take a cross-disciplinary approach and collaborate with multiple disciplines. Although that may sound logical, in practice people working on projects can quickly begin pursuing their own course. In theory it will ultimately all come together somewhere in the design process, but that’s often relatively late.’
‘In my own projects, there are regular occasions when I say something like “in terms of building services design, we should actually do x, but I personally don’t think it looks right”. As a design team, you then need to find a solution that works technically but is also aesthetically sound and fits into the overall picture. At times like that, my art academy background may also play a role: after TU Delft, I spent a few years in my 20s at the WDKA academy in Rotterdam. I often find it an interesting challenge to combine these two very different areas: technology and aesthetics.’
Buckle down and take action
‘In the building services world, we currently face an unprecedented energy transition. When it comes to achieving circularity in building services, I personally think that we’ve only just begun. In terms of digitalisation and building technology, we can also anticipate all kinds of changes. And what about the coronavirus pandemic? It’s put indoor air quality, ventilation and air purification well and truly back on the international agenda. We’re living in an interesting time that will have a significant impact on the building services of the future, but we really need to buckle down and take action now. The time for game-playing is over. Some serious solutions need to be developed rapidly, and everyone needs to take shared responsibility from their own specific specialism.’
In Boerstra's view, there is still no strong, clearly-defined vision of well-integrated building services. Even in education. ‘In many architectural and construction-related degree programmes, building services tend to be neglected. Often, the idea is that the architect comes up with something and then someone who’s studied mechanical engineering will arrive to make sense of it. In the future, we need a different and smarter approach. An approach in which the different disciplines make better use of each other’s talents. Besides, an architect who has some basic knowledge of building services doesn’t need to rely too much on his or her technical advisers and has more freedom to design as a result.
The fact that building services costs can often be cut at the very last minute because these systems are out of sight also doesn’t help. But when people are eventually living and working in the building, they for sure will feel whether the indoor climate is right or not. To quote Heraclitus: the invisible has more effect than the visible. That’s something you notice, day in day out, once you’re in the building.
All of this is yet another reason for not only consciously designing the visible aspects within a building, but also what’s hidden. That means taking account of the temperature, the CO2 and fine particulate concentrations indoors that you’re exposing building occupants to. That’s only possible if your building services effectively match the rest of your design.’
‘One area I’d particularly want to work on is something that’s already reasonably developed in Denmark: microclimate systems. Rather than being designed to heat or cool large volumes of air, these systems focus specifically on climate control in areas where people spend long periods sitting or sleeping. This has numerous advantages: you can respond more effectively to differences in individual temperature needs and it’s more energy efficient overall.
My professorship at TU Delft is part-time, so I need to use the time I have carefully. That means making targeted choices and working efficiently. One of my key tasks here at TU Delft is to set up and implement field and product development research with colleagues. Part of my objective in doing that will be to place the subject of building services more firmly on the map for stakeholders in society, and especially for architects and the current generation of architecture students. Achieving healthy, energy-efficient and circular buildings will only be possible in the years ahead if we also aim to achieve top marks for building services as well.’