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Traditional courtyards built around climate control… not art

October 16, 2012 - Researchers from the University of Seville (Spain) have used mathematical tools to assess what has apparently been known for centuries: the temperature inside the typical Mediterranean courtyard is cooler than that of the street. Though seemingly common sense, understanding such information in detail helps to save energy and money—the objective of eco-efficient buildings.


October 16, 2012
By Anthony Capkun

The inhabitants of Mediterranean regions have known for centuries that, during the summer, their courtyards are cooler than the street. “Why then put air-conditioning extractor units on rooftops or outer walls when we could save energy by taking the cooler air from inside the courtyard,” suggests architect Juan Manuel Rojas.

Along with two lecturers at the University of Seville, the researcher has developed a mathematical tool that for the first time assesses the thermodynamic behaviour of the courtyard.

These spaces create a mixture of phenomena: stratification (hot air rises and cold air falls); convection (the walls heated throughout the day project air upwards); and flow patterns (whirlwind formation depending on the geometry of the space), Rojas explains.

All of this information is brought together in a program using specific data on the local climate (average temperatures and wind speed) and that of the courtyard itself (height, width, the materials from which it was built) as not all absorb the same levels of radiation. The result is a ‘film’ showing air evolution throughout the day.

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“The model allows for the thermal advantages of the courtyards to be assessed. In turn, this provides new design possibilities for more efficient and sustainable buildings without going over budget,” outlines the architect, who demands that the knowledge and wisdom used for over 4000 years continues in the construction of modern buildings.

The researcher’s model has been put to the test in a hotel in Malaga (Monte Malaga) following the thermodynamic strategies of the courtyard for an overall improvement in their energy efficiency. The hotel is air-conditioned by taking the air from the lower part of the courtyard, which can be up to 9 C cooler than outside in the summer. This translates as a financial and energy saving, as the building consumes half the energy of the surrounding buildings.

“The deepest and narrowest courtyards work better in hotter regions, whereas more open ones work better in the North, as we can see by simply searching on Google Maps,” says Rojas, who believes that climate—not culture or art—has conditioned the most appropriate courtyard type according to region, which has then been continued due to tradition.