Ideas and Inspiration from Ancient Rome

ancient green building rome

Image Source: Interior Design Online Magazine

In Australia, we tend to think of green building as ‘high tech’ and ‘high spec.’ However, if we take a look at ancient Roman structures, it is clear that green building was on display even then, and without all of the high tech innovations we have available to us in the 21st century.

At the height of the Roman Empire, the imperial city was the largest urban centre in the world, with a population of around a million people. Rome’s urban layout was influenced by the shape of the land – by its streams, hills and marshes. Its built environment was equally influenced by nature. With a Mediterranean climate that features four distinct seasons, Romans were challenged to design structures that were warm in winter, cool in summer and suited to long periods of wet weather.

In Rome, there are many examples of daylight-based orientation, hydro-power, passive cooling systems, advanced heating systems and rain water collection in ancient and mediaeval buildings. Each of these building principles has been embraced by sustainable building designers in Australia today.

Roman palazzos and villas were designed with the sun in mind, with rooms positioned to maximise the sun’s rays in winter and the cooling shade in summer. Even small details, such as the placement of libraries, was considered by ancient Roman architects, who reasoned that an Eastern position would keep the books dry while ensuring scholars enjoyed the bright morning light.

Villas featured storm-water management systems known as ‘impluviums.’ These were sunken sections of the central atrium which prevented water damage during heavy rains and had a cooling effect during summer’s heat. In winter, radiant floor heat was generated through the ‘hypocaustrum’ – a raised floor that enabled hot air to flow from a furnace, through the underfloor space, up through the walls and out through roof openings.

Trevi Fountain

Trevi Fountain, Rome

In Rome, green building is not just an ancient tradition but a very modern practise as well, as evidenced by the Paul VI Audience Hall in the Vatican City. The Hall, designed by Italian architect Pier Luigi Nervi and completed in 1971, was built to hold services for up to 8,000 people in winter. Today, the 5,000 square metre roof is covered with 2,400 photovoltaic panels which generate enough energy to supply the building’s heating, cooling and lighting. The annual energy savings equates to 225 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. While the Vatican City is the world’s smallest state, thanks to this project, it can also lay claim to the title of the world’s first solar powered state.

Both ancient and modern Rome demonstrate a number of great ideas for designing a greener built environment. Like Rome, Australia has an international reputation as a leader in sustainability, with an industry that has embraced Green Star and green building. While it’s true that we’re currently faced with a challenging operating environment in Australia, many countries face obstacles that we cannot comprehend: unsupportive governments, disinterested industry stakeholders, corruption, complex boards, lack of support from other industry stakeholders and funding issues.

Australia may not have the ancient architecture of the Romans to remind us of the possibilities, but we have a passionate and highly-educated industry with a ‘can do’ attitude and a world-leading record of success in green building. Now that’s inspiring!

By Romilly Madew,
Chief Executive, GBCA
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