Dr Wolfgang Kessling is one of the directors of Transsolar Energietechnik GmbH, Munich—an international climate-engineering firm that approaches sustainability through innovative climate and energy concepts for buildings. Founded in 1992, Transsolar has about 50 engineers with offices in Stuttgart, Munich, New York and Paris. The practice focuses on enhancing human comfort with minimum resource use.
Dr Kessling has been instrumental in spearheading the energy concepts of prominent projects such as the Cooled Conservatories at Gardens by the Bay, Singapore; Zero Energy Office Building, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and the Human Resources Headquarters at Novartis Basel, Switzerland. In the interview with Lakshmi Menon, he shares his critique on system-centric building design practices of today, at the wake of an impending energy crisis.
LM: From physics to climate engineering, can you briefly chart your trajectory of practice?
WK: I studied nuclear physics until Chernobyl, the nuclear catastrophe that happened in Ukraine. In April 1986, I changed from nuclear physics to solar physics. This made me relook at energy sources and understanding the potential that solar energy holds. Thereafter, I worked as a researcher for 10 years, investigating and developing solar air-conditioning systems. In due course, I understood that it was quite important to make buildings better before employing systems to make them comfortable. Better-designed buildings decrease the need to rely on energy sources.
This ideology brought me to Transsolar, which was founded at that time by friends of mine. Most of them came from similar research backgrounds. Our worldviews suggested that we rethink our buildings before we negotiate with the energy systems that enhance them. In this manner, if one can reduce the demand for energy, the debate on renewable versus non-renewable sources becomes meaningful. This is where we are at in Transsolar. We essentially strive to make buildings comfortable from an energy standpoint.
LM: You are a physicist. Does not being from an architectural or engineering background impact the way you think about buildings?
WK: So in our attempt to make building designs better, we focus on the fundamentals of physics. It’s not so much about applying rules of thumb, codes of practice, etc., which everyone is trained to do. For us, everything to do with the building distils down to the thermodynamics of its constituents. We closely study the performance of materials and how their attributes impact the performance of the building in totality. I could say that my scientific background helps me think about performance.
I cannot draw too well nor am I a good designer—but I monitor the performance of the building that is linked to design decisions. For example, how does glass as a material used as a design strategy for shading perform in different climatic contexts? This is what makes climate engineering powerful—we fundamentally study the performance of materials. We look at buildings and system performances, microscopically yet holistically. It does sound complex and difficult but here lies the opportunity to innovate and improvise market norms.