Considered the greenhouse of the 21st Century, the groundbreaking Alpine House is opening this month in London’s Kew Gardens The innovative cooling greenhouse was designed by Wilkinson Eyre Architects, who are in charge of Kew’s long-term development plan. The new Alpine House was designed to replace the earlier, less functional, pyramid-shaped Alpine House.

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The all-glass structures of regular greenhouses trap hot air and heat up – creating an environment that is perfect for tropical plants. Unfortunately, however, cool-weather Alpine plants cannot be grown in structures like this, but instead require a cool, dry, yet sunny space. The difficulty in designing an efficient Alpine House comes from to the difficulty of designing a structure of glass (and sunlight) that will not get extremely hot inside. While most greenhouses are designed to keep plants warm while sheltering them from the irregularities of the normal climate, the Alpine House had to be designed to have plenty of sunlight, keep plants dry, but also keep them cool and well ventilated.

Wilkinson Eyre solved this problem by designing two back-to-back arches, creating a cooling stack effect. Below ground level, air is pushed into a concrete labyrinth for cooling, and then recirculated around the rest of the building with displacement pipes. The resulting form of the Alpine House proves to be graceful and fits organically into the surrounding environment. The north-south orientation provides a narrow profile to the sun while the convex curve of the east an west sides deflect direct sunlight. And in a final stroke of genius, the designers added large mechanical shades that can fan out across the sides of the building when the temperature gets too hot.

The feasibility of the Alpine House would not be possible without the use of today’s technology, including detailed computer simulations by environmental engineers at Atelier 10.

The Alpine House is a model of good environmental design and should be emulated by residential designers thinking of ways to try to maximize light while minimizing temperature.

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