In Paris, defunct chimneys get a clean sweep

PARIS -- French architectural innovation lab looks to chimneys to save energy and decrease emissions, winning nod from City Hall in annual competition.
Written by Bryan Pirolli, Correspondent (Paris)

PARIS – AirDesignLab, a Paris-based laboratory, is improving the way we think about sustainable architecture. Launched in 2010, the lab seeks to help building owners and architects maximize energy efficiency in new and existing construction. Their innovations on urban architecture, specifically defunct chimneys, landed them a finalist position in this year's Grands Prix de l’Innovation, Paris's annual innovation awards, now in its eleventh year.

In France, some 40% of carbon emissions come from buildings. In a nationwide effort to reduce energy consumption and thus carbon emissions from homes, public, and private buildings, the minister of ecology, sustainability, and energy hammered out new standards in 2009 for construction. The next phase will target new residential buildings starting in January 2013, requiring them to consume less energy than current structures.

The new standards also require that existing buildings renovate to reduce consumption by 38%, a difficult task with so much 19th century architecture that predates present-day notions of "eco-friendly."

For example, most buildings in France were, once upon a time, heated exclusively by chimneys. Skylines in Paris are still spiked with the formerly polluting chimneys that once required sweeping to keep clean – a famous clogged chimney even led to the premature death of famed French writer Emile Zola. Currently, most are sealed off and unused, though the city is beginning to rethink these largely-aesthetic structures with the help of AirDesignLab.

The team is composed of two French researchers who spent time at the University of California and an American now studying at French business school HEC.  Together, their idea is to lower energy bills and heating costs by modifying existing chimney ducts to cool or warm up buildings using the natural air flow. While he couldn't divulge all of the details on the technology, team member Julien Rathle discussed the project’s goals with SmartPlanet. "You can switch from one mode to another mode when you need to improve the comfort inside the space. We use the chimney and we modify it on the roof and inside of it," he said.

Cooling commercial buildings and offices was the original idea for AirDesgnLab's research, but they soon applied their studies to residential structures. The ingenuity is not only in the attempt to reduce energy consumption, but in the way the lab is approaching French architecture.

Instead of installing cumbersome air circulation systems and units on the roofs of centuries-old buildings, Rathle and his team are looking to use what's already there by modifying existing chimney flues.  "We believe chimneys are a part of the language of Paris," he said, "and we're going to reuse this system and this language on the roof."

Rathle said that in Paris alone the lab's modifications could apply to 47,000 buildings, with several chimneys per building. While the implementation would cost around 7000 euros per chimney, he said within two to three years the energy savings would pay it all back.

Hopefully Rathle and his team will have more opportunities thanks to the nod from City Hall since the public sector, in addition to the private sector, can benefit from these innovations.  While AirDesignLab wasn't chosen as a grand prize winner this year, Rathle thinks that their technology would be a great investment for Paris.

"I think the city is mainly interested by being an example," he said.  The next step is to continue working with investors and to help convince building owners that AirDesignLab's implementations are worthwhile.

Photo: AirDesignLab

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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