Image of Solar lights with overlaid quote: there's a missing connection between space usage and energy consumption

Carlo Ratti Associati: the architecture of energy

Mar 28, 2018

In a world where the impact of our energy consumption and the scarcity of our resources are increasingly urgent issues, it’s widely accepted that technology is going to play a crucial role in making our day-to-day life more sustainable.

Smart cities, smart buildings and smart energy consumption are terms often bandied about in discussions of the future of energy, but few are working as innovatively to make these concepts a reality as Carlo Ratti Associati (CRA) - a design and innovation practice at the forefront of creating buildings and environments that are as adaptable and advanced as their occupants.

Local warming

“There is a missing connection between space usage and energy consumption,” says Professor Carlo Ratti, the firm’s founding partner. “The result is that a staggering amount of energy is wasted on heating empty or partially occupied buildings. We started looking into this a few years ago, with a paper at MIT that estimated how much energy was wasted in heating and cooling empty spaces.”

An engineer, inventor, professor, and architect, Carlo Ratti founded the MIT Senseable City Lab in 2004 with the aim of promoting urban innovation through design and science, and exploring the interaction between people, technology and the places they live. Their paper estimated that energy waste could be cut by 40% through only heating the parts of buildings with people in them.

“People followed heat during the stone age,” says Professor Ratti. “What if, today, we could make the heat follow people instead?” And so the idea for Local Warming was born, and unveiled as an installation at the Venice Biennale of Architecture exhibition in 2014.

Diagram of how local warming works.

“The project used motion-tracking sensors to generate the desired climate – through collimated [precisely aligned] beams of infra-red radiation - directly around individuals.” Local Warming demonstrated the potential for occupancy detection by showing how heat could follow people to keep them warm, albeit on a relatively small scale, and outdoors.

Two years later, CRA put these ideas into practice on a much larger and more impactful scale, in its redesign of the Agnelli Foundation’s historical headquarters - a modernist Turin office block built in 1966.

“We equipped the old office building with digital sensors,” says Professor Ratti. “These monitor many variables - such as temperature, light levels, and the rooms' occupancy status - and we matched this information with data on people's occupancy.” Fan coil units situated in the false ceilings react to human presence, thereby making it possible to create a ‘thermal bubble’ that follows each of the building’s occupants as they go about their day.

Inside Agnetti HQ

“When a person gets into the building and sets their preferences in terms of temperature or lighting, the building management system recognises them as they move about the building, and automatically responds by adjusting the heating, cooling and lighting systems accordingly.”

So not only does the system create greater levels of comfort - and fewer arguments about what temperature the office should be - it does so while optimising space usage for significantly more sustainable energy consumption.

As well as designing buildings that cut energy waste by interacting with their occupants, CRA has also designed buildings that can generate renewable energy by interacting with their environment.

The Sun&Shade canopy is a canopy constructed from digitally-controlled mirrors which track the movement of the sun; it follows light and heat, rather than having heat and light follow people. Sun&Shade was displayed at 2017’s World Government Summit as part of the “Reimagining Climate Change” exhibition at Dubai’s Museum of the Future.



“Much like a sunflower,” says Professor Ratti, “each mirror can move on a double axis and reflect the sun’s rays away from the ground – allowing the precise control of the desired level of shading and natural cooling underneath. Reflected rays, in turn, are concentrated on a photovoltaic receiver located a safe distance away, in order to generate solar power.”

So as well as generating electricity, the canopy also eliminates the need for any kind of powered cooling underneath - achieving climate control at zero net energy cost. Again, though, the benefits aren’t just practical; the tilting mirrors also create startling geometric shadows on the ground below, reinterpreting the traditional tessellated patterns associated with Arabic architecture.

However, CRA does have an upcoming project that is more purely conceptual and decorative, while still demonstrating the immense and highly versatile potential for what we can achieve with renewable energy. Living Nature (or La Natura dell’Abitare) is to be a self-contained garden pavilion which will open as part of Milan Design Week 2018, in the city’s main square. In essence, visitors will be able to experience autumn, spring, summer and winter - all over the course of 500 square meters.

Examples of Ratti's work

A structure with four enclosed chambers, the installation will explore how energy flow can be controlled to create four distinct microclimates, and solar power plays a pivotal role in this process.

“Above the pavilion, there are photovoltaic panels generating clean energy,” says Professor Ratti, “which is then fed into batteries and, in turn, into heat pumps. The effect is cooling of the winter area - and then, thanks to a heat exchanger - heating the summer chamber. Batteries provide the additional storage necessary to smoothen high and low peaks of energy production.”

Each of these CRA projects, as futuristic and high-concept as they appear to be on the surface, address truly fundamental concerns about how we interact with energy and our environment. Living Nature raises questions about how we can best control energy distribution to benefit both urban and natural environments; Sun&Shade asks if we can harness the energy of extreme climates in order to prevent further climate change; Local Warming and the Agnelli Foundation HQ highlight just how much energy we waste on a daily basis and proposes a technologically radical solution.

All of the conventional knowledge suggests that our cities, our buildings and our ways of life are part of our planet’s problem. Carlo Ratti and CRA dare to imagine a world in which they could be part of the solution.