Simple Victorian Engineering

Peter Rumsey is one of the smartest mechanical engineers working, and a key figure in the green building movement. Here's his website. I like Peter because he advocates for “Simple Victorian Engineering.”1 In a discipline where increasing complexity is taken for granted, this is a big idea.

What does he mean by Simple Victorian Engineering? Rumsey's project shown above---the Global Ecology Research Center at Stanford, architecture by EHDD2---gives a good indication. The design uses a prominent chimney element, which is a down-draft evaporative cooling tower with a water-spray inside. It relies on buoyancy forces, rather than fan power, to pull cool air into the building when needed. It is, as Rumsey says, "elegant and efficient." It also gives the building an architectural feature which expresses how the building works.

To see the connection to Victorian engineering, let's take the Johns Hopkins Hospital as a representative example. (I'm cherry-picking because my friends Alistair Fair and Alan Short have recently written some excellent new scholarship about the hospital complex3 and because the Isolating Ward is such an excellent aesthetic statement about ventilation as seen below.) In this building, fresh air was delivered to the patient rooms through ventilating louvers in the walls, with heating coils, being drawn in as the "foul" air was pulled up and out by the convective force of the tall chimneys which included "accelerating steam coils."4 In other words, the building uses the forces of buoyancy to move large amounts of air (2 cubic feet per person per second!) when electric fan power did not yet exist.

 Isolating Ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital, c. 1876 ( link to image at Wikimedia )

Isolating Ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital, c. 1876 (link to image at Wikimedia)

I'm not sure that most Victorian-engineered buildings were "simple" or low-energy.  Think about all of the construction complexity in those chimneys and steam coils above!  But I understand that Rumsey's point is more about returning to first principles, freshman engineering concepts, than about mimicking Victorian buildings directly.  After all, Rumsey's chimney works in the opposite direction.

Another thinker who is making the connection between Victorian engineering and the current green building movement is Vidar Lerum, professor at the University of Illinois and author of the new book Sustainable Building Design: Learning from nineteenth-century innovations.  This books studies 10 examples of Victorian Engineering (in excellent detail) and 16 recent examples of low-energy architecture.  The cleverly-illustrated book cover shows the Natural History Museum, London, juxtaposed with the Powerhouse One building in Trondheim.

This is a very good book and I hope to write more about it.  Lerum is not a historian and fully admits to “nonchalantly leapfrogging the twentieth [century].”  It's a bold intellectual move to jump from 1897 to 2007, as he does, skipping over the period of Modern architecture (and the modern science of solar heating).

As a historian it is both interesting and a bit curious to see these efforts to connect Victorian engineering and the green building movement or low-energy buildings today.  It seems to me there are two ways to think about Victorian engineering: 1) This way, as Rumsey and Lerum do, offering lessons which can lead us to a low-energy future, or; 2) practically the opposite, as the beginning of the era of "applied power," mechanical control, and high energy use.  Reyner Banham represented Victorian engineering this second way in his influential The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment (1969).  What a fascinating duality!  I'm intrigued by the likelihood that both interpretations are valid.


1I first heard Peter use the phrase “Simple Victorian Engineering” in a meeting here at the University of Wyoming in about 2010 when he was part of a team competing for a new building commission. (They did not get the job, unfortunately.) Here's a 2010 presentation by Rumsey (pdf) where he uses the concept.
2RMI case study (pdf)
3C. Alan Short, et al. "Functional recovery of a resilient hospital type." Building Research & Information, (2014).
4Described here.