a course-long investigation of inveterate systems, sites, and buildings

Azuma Row House by Tadao Ando | Designing Architecture to Purposefully Make People Feel uNCoMfoRTabLE

The Azuma Row House (Sumiyoshi, Osaka, Japan) was designed by Tadao Ando in 1976. Built in an old post WWII neighborhood of wooden row houses, his project replaced its predecessor with a modern interpretation of the urban context. Cast in concrete, Ando’s austere and functional design divides the site into three parts – two equally sized enclosed interior volumes flanking an open-air courtyard. Centralizing the courtyard makes it an integral part of circulation and the focus of everyday life. What makes this setup particularly unique is that there is no way to cross to either side of the house without passing through exterior and ultimately confronting nature. Despite the hardships that this may enforce on the inhabitants, Ando defends his design:

At the time [mid-1970s], I thought of residential design as the creation of a place where people can dwell as they themselves intend. If they feel cold, they can put on an additional layer of clothing. If they feel warm, they can discard extraneous clothing. What is important is the space be, not a device for environmental control, but something definite and responsive to human life… No matter how advanced society becomes, institutionally or technologically, a house in which nature can be sensed represents for me the ideal environment in which to live.

With subtle and careful presentation Ando forces occupants to experience the dynamic flows of nature every single day. Despite the advent of highly thermally controlled architecture, the environment’s energy flows are somehow an inherent experience in inhabiting the house. I’d like to explore how this seemingly anachronistic and modest design approach affects the comfort and lifestyle of its victims, oops I mean tenants 😉

Tadao Ando is actually one of my favorite architects, and is world renowned for his stunning manipulation of air, light, and water. This project, his first residential commission, explores issues we’ve discussed in class regarding heat transfer, air flow, and light.

Thermally Active Surfaces and flows: What kind of environment does Ando create?

The building envelope of the Azuma Row House is simple and uniform — a continuous façade with no apertures, except for one small skylight. Apart from its inward –facing glass walls and minimal wood finish, the majority of the envelope is cast concrete, which has a very high specific heat capacity (0.880 J/(gK)), and therefore capable of absorbing  a lot of heat energy. This trait affects the heating and cooling of the interior and courtyard in various ways

Courtyard_ Constantly exposed to the sun, the concrete and stone slabs receive heat energy from the sun’s direct radiation, diffused sky radiation, and any rays reflected off of surrounding buildings. They cannot easily conduct or release this energy and stores it throughout the day, gradually increasing in temperature. The ground can retain a large amount of heat for hours, which can make standing in that space uncomfortable – think of asphalt on a summer day. Also since hot air molecules rise, the occupant space air temperature can become overheated and uncomfortable as well. This is a greater concern in the summer time when exposure and temperatures are high. Furthermore, by placing the exterior space at the center of the row house the building envelope’s surface area almost doubles, which can be a crucial matter for skin-loaded or envelope dominated structures. Expanding the threshold for hot or cool air to transfer across makes the thermal environment asymmetrical, less predictable, and uncomfortable.

The Interior­­­­_ In each room there are four surfaces of exposed concrete. Although the floors are covered with wood slats providing insulation between the foot and slab, there is still conduction of heat energy through the walls. Bearing in mind the house’s small scale, there is likely considerable contact with the building envelope which prompts measurable heat loss from the human body – comfortable during warm seasons, frustrating during cold.

The sixth surface of every room is a floor-to-ceiling plane of glass with a glass door. Although certain types of glass have relatively high heat capacities, the metal mullions that support the panes are highly conductive – not to mention that a building cannot be perfectly sealed. A significant temperature difference across this barrier will cause a convection current that will easily circulate warm air into a cooler courtyard, and vice versa, causing fluctuations in the room’s temperature.

In addition, without any apertures to penetrate, radiation waves reflect off of the house’s exterior facade or are absorbed by it. Unlike the courtyard, this heat exchange occurs on the side the occupants do not have contact with. Since the thick thermal mass absorbs all of the heat, the interior remains cool. Again, despite the benefit in the summer, this kind of passive radiant heating could be very useful during the winter.

Thermal Comfort_ After reading Heating, Cooling, and Lighting by Lechner we discussed the body’s thermal response to any environment, or its relationship with the space’s temperature profile. Many of the thermally dynamic characteristics of the Azuma House are beneficial during one season, and a burden during another. However, some issues like convection across thermal surfaces can always work against your desired comfort zone. Ando includes many conductive and convective thermal surfaces in his construction and few radiant sources. The volatility of convection patterns make air flow, heat transfer, and therefore room temperature asymmetrical and unpredictable.

Natural Ventilation: How does Ando achieve reasonable comfort through passive design?

As a skin-load or envelope dominated structure – with climate dependent cooling requirements– passive solar heating is a reliable method to keep the structure reasonably comfortable because it is an efficient transfer of heat energy between the climate and envelope that requires no fluid medium like in convection. Part of what makes these structures so easily influenced by their envelopes, are their large surface area-to-volume ratio, which creates a large gateway for heat loss. It’s interesting to see what fluid dynamics principles, if any, Ando utilized to make the space more comfortable by modern standards. To start, there are no mechanical systems in the structure for heating or cooling.

Cross Ventilation_ Again, the building envelope is a continuous and uniform surface. There aren’t proper inlets or outlets to let wind through the interior spaces, as there no apertures at all. Therefore, no cross ventilation can occur.

Stack Effect_ However, high-speed winds redirected over the row house can create a region of lower temperature that draws out the warm air from the courtyard. It produces something similar to a stack effect. When air in the courtyard gains heat energy due to high air temperature or thermal radiation, its buoyancy will decrease, causing it  to rise up out of the courtyard. This is what prompts the convection of cool air from the interior to the exterior through the glass pane, as I mentioned above under Interior thermal flows. The rising warm air molecules leave a region of low pressure that draws the high pressure cool air into the void – as molecules always flow form groups of greater energy to groups of lower energy.

High Mass Cooling_ The Azuma row house is a great example of Night ventilation of a thermal mass. The concrete slabs have a great capacity to hold heat that accumulated during the day and is gradually released as the surrounding environment cools in the evening. More specifically, at night, cool air circulates through the building and the heat in the thermal mass is released to the space above it, keeping it warm and renewing its own ability to re-absorb more energy the following day. This prevents sudden swings in hot and cold temperature.

Why not more natural ventilation? _ There are several cons or obstacles that come about when utilizing certain types of natural ventilation, which is why Ando might have under-utilized these methods. Noise, pollutants, and harsh winds are a side effect of any kind of ventilation system that passes through a structure at occupant level, which — considering the scale of this project — was unavoidable.  Although I think that these system characteristics could in some way support Ando’s thesis regarding bringing the house’s inhabitants closer with nature, cross ventilation in addition to such a large open-air courtyard, would form a setting too abrasive for his clients, especially considering the urban conditions. Furthermore the penetrating sounds, smells, and contents of street’s cross breeze would also undermine his idea of the “inward looking” house.

In Conclusion: Would I have the courage to live here?

Is Tadao Ando successful in creating a thermally appropriate environment for humans. Well, that’s a difficult question to answer, as it can be interpreted from many of his works and from his own words that his intention was to make his occupants slightly uncomfortable. Ando has said that walls have often separated us from the outside world in a way that has “bordered on violent.” Through his design it seems he allows light and air to enter into the  daily lifestyle of humans in order to disrupt the stale inertia of the modernist lifestyle. As we have discussed in class, humans are historically and genetically outdoor animals, and that our bodies thrive considerably more when we expand our temporal zone of comfort. Ando does exactly that, challenging the widespread momentum towards thermally controlled environments in residential architecture that was simultaneously taking place in America during the 1970’s. I agree with the general principles Ando implies in his design — that we should stop relying on mechanical heating/cooling systems to moderate every environment we occupy, and that a little compromise on our end can go a long way in terms of conserving energy and minimizing waste. On the other hand, I’d also appreciate not having to use an umbrella in my own house. Tadao Ando caught the world’s attention with his extreme manifestation of nature’s intervention in the modern home — and he successfully and succinctly made his point. But if I were to follow his footsteps in my personal practice, I’d most likely prefer a more moderate approach.


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4 thoughts on “Azuma Row House by Tadao Ando | Designing Architecture to Purposefully Make People Feel uNCoMfoRTabLE

  1. Molly Spetalnick on said:

    I am interested to know the source of your photos. I need to cite this information for a presentation, and I am unable to find the files elsewhere.
    Thank you for your help,
    Molly Spetalnick

  2. Interested Student on said:

    What sources did you use to compile this information. Are the diagrams made by yourself?

    – Interested Student

  3. I am also an architect who admires Tadao Ando. I surprise and admire your analysis about Azuma house. Good job!

  4. PencilManTM on said:

    he he..! victims!.. Good Observations.

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