How to

20 January 2017

Harnessing Body Heat: Buildings, Buses and Other Bodies

Img: New York Times 
The vast heating demands of entire cities which endure throughout winter constitute some of the world’s most substantial drains on coal and oil reserves and contribute to the most emissions-heavy industries modernity has to offer. However, in something of a poignant double-whammy of change, architects are slowly pioneering innovative approaches to tackling the impact we have on the planet and, indirectly, one another: by designing structures which harvest and recycle body heat.

Human bodies radiate about 100W of energy – the same as a couple of light bulbs. Putting 100 light bulbs in a confined space would clearly generate plenty of warmth; which explains why buses holding 50 or so people can get relatively warm even in the coldest weather. Inspired by such collectivism, the Stockholm-based real estate company Jernhusen have used the excess body heat of thousands of commuters in the capital’s Central Station to heat a building on the other side of the road. Indeed, following suit, French architects from Paris Habitat a year later designed underfloor heating for 17 apartment buildings situated above Rambuteau Metro, keeping occupants’ feet toasty and using, importantly, far less energy in the process. The collection systems in each case, being positioned in busy transport hubs, draw upon the total excess body heat generated by fast-moving, half-exercising commuters during their morning rush to work.

However, it’s not just train stations which accommodate throngs of people on a regular basis. Shopping centres, public buildings and covered pedestrian zones offer opportunities for heat-extraction. Indeed, it’s not just the heat of human bodies which could be recycled more efficiently. We’ve noted before the Urban Heat Island effect – whereby cities and urban areas are, on average, roughly three degrees warmer than rural ones. Well, imagine if the excess heat from all those trams, cars, ventilation systems and buses were to be channelled to where they’re needed most instead of escaping into the atmosphere. It would mean a huge reduction in the energy requirements of the city itself (albeit colder streets between its buildings).

Img: Pinterest
There’s an interesting social aspect to building structures around collective heating efforts. Indeed, there’s something beautiful about penguins huddling together for warmth in the wild. It’s an efficient means to conserve the heat of the collective; and whilst political scientists tend not to cast Pingu as the highly socialist dissident he is, penguin-huddling does spur plenty of artistic-types to parallel the instinctive behaviour with our own human inclinations toward sharing and cooperation. The approach to sustainability offered by these buildings consequently affords small yet real results in both environmental and social terms; by virtue of their sheer resourcefulness and their emphasis upon the togetherness we experience within them. Good show, architects! Viva la Revonootion.

James Stannard

James has a Bachelor’s degree in History and wrote his dissertation on beef and protest. His heroes list ranges from Adele to Noam Chomsky: inspirations he’ll be invoking next year when he begins a Master’s degree in London.