Metal mesh is a cool solution for Tulane University’s award-winning student center.
By Frank Edgerton Martin
In today’s most energy efficient and successful public buildings, metal meshes and fabrics are more than a decorative detail. They are active contributors to integrated building systems for air circulation, dehumidification, solar gain, screening and lighting. Tulane University’s new Lavin-Bernick Center for University Life, designed by architects VJAA of Minneapolis, Minn., is actually a reuse of the footprint and structure of an earlier postwar student center—one of the most sustainable gestures a designer can make. Yet outside and within, the Center for University Life is a consummate 21st century “smart” building with variant shading, radiant cooling and thermal zones.
Tulane’s new student center deservedly won a 2009 national AIA design award for its brilliant combination of public spaces, programming and climate control. Although New Orleans, La., has many hot and humid months, there are also long spans in the fall and winter when the weather is moderate, albeit humid. Thus, the building can be opened up and cooled with more traditional means such as fabric screens for shading, radiant cooled surfaces and fans.
VJAA developed a creative use of vertical woven metal mesh panels as water walls in the light-filled Nalty Commons area. Clerestory windows at the roof bring daylight into major spaces while also providing solar-driven ventilation. In the high-ceilinged space, pendulum fans drive air downward over the chilled-water surfaces of four mesh water walls created by GKD Metal Fabrics of Cambridge, Md. Like immense hanging banners, the 2m wide by 8m tall scrims not only help to spatially define the seating area, they also cool this central space.
It’s a simple solution. VJAA’s AIA award summary explains that a “microclimate is created at the water walls where chilled moving water dehumidifies and provides a cool surface for air movement from the fans.” Thus, in one of the nation’s most humid cities, the introduction of cold water can actually make microclimates drier. This is an old idea, but VJAA’s creation of mesh water walls raises basic air-cooling to a public art.
At VJAA’s newly-built Charles Hostler Student Center at the American University of Beirut, similar water walls are used to cool outside spaces. (Look in the Sept/Oct 2012 issue of FA for a profile of this recent arid climate project.) As at Tulane, these mesh water walls promise the calming sound of water reminiscent of a rushing brook or the gentle hum of water flowing down a textured chaddar—the water chutes that cool Persian gardens. At both Tulane and Beirut, the elegant and tactile quality of metal fabric becomes a hanging water garden that makes everyone more comfortable in many ways. Like so many products from metal cables to geofabrics, woven metal meshes offer great potential for such creative reinterpretation as artistic tools in sustainable design.
VJAA was recently honored with the 2012 National AIA Architecture Firm Award.