What role does physics play in architecture?

Architects seek to challenge existing norms of form and space and are looking to expand their horizons into exploring new forms. A pre-existing knowledge of physics contributes towards an integrated approach that takes into account both the experiential and the technical aspects of design and construction

The design of buildings should thus be a seamless amalgamation of both linear and lateral thinking. The following image is a graphical representation of the disciplines that come together to create promising architecture. 

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Architecture and physics_©www.kbarch.com

Linear thinking deals with established analogies and laws that can be proved through equations or analytical reasoning. Lateral thinking draws parallels and creates links across different fields and is at the mercy of on each individual’s creativity. Architecture is a consolidation of both science and art and as a course requires lateral thinking that has overlapping elements from various fields such as physics, chemistry, mathematics, history, sociology etc. Physics in particular broadens our knowledge of the physical world around us and provides us with a clarity on the way of life.

Fundamentals of Physics

This field of science, in its simplest terms’ studies three forms of matter which are solids, liquids and gaseous state. It brings forth their inherent properties and their impact on its immediate surroundings. This includes understanding pressure, volume, weight and other such elements that are imperative to the construction of a built structure.

Understanding the forces that act on a built structure

In simple terms, tension is the force that pulls away from each other and compression is the force that keeps elements together.  Some materials such as steel are good in tension whereas concrete is good in compression. Balancing the forces that are constantly acting on a built structure such as tension and compression is the most important role of physics in architecture. In the case of structures such as arches, the compressive forces alone keep the structure upright. 

Tension

Tension, as mentioned before the material is at a state of stress that is being pulled apart. Consider the example of a tug of war game that is being pulled on either side. The rope is in a constant state of tension. In the case of a built structure, gravitational forces, expansion due to heat / magnetism and the force of the weight acting on the structure contribute to its overall tension. The knowledge of physics helps in understanding each material’s individual properties and its contribution to the forces acting on the building. 

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Example of tensile structure_©www.designerawning.in/tensile-structure-images

Compression

Compression on the other hand is the stress acting on the built structure that is keeping it together. Consider the example of a spring that springs back into its original shape after being pulled apart. In the case of a built structure, a column is in a constant state of compression because of the stresses that are induced. 

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Example of compression structure_© enviragallery.com

Loads 

Loads are forces that cause stress and deformations in the built structure. Loads can be both horizontal and vertical and can be largely classified as live loads and dead loads. Dead loads are static forces that are relatively constant whereas live loads are variable depending on the occupancy. Understanding the properties of these forces is essential to avoid buckling or snapping of structure that may put people in danger. 

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types of loads_©civildigital.com

Role of physics in architecture 

Physics in architecture is used to solve practical problems that arise to keep a structure erect by balancing out the aforementioned forces that are constantly at play. It also includes material selection, thermal performance and overall efficiency of built space. Effective ventilation and daylighting are imperative to a good design and are a derivative of a keen understanding of the physics of built space. 

Material Selection 

Every material has intrinsic properties such as heat index, tensile strength and compressive strength. Steel for example has excellent tensile strength but is not good in compression. Concrete on the other hand is good in compression but has low tensile strength. Every material used in construction contributes to the forces acting on the structure.

Daylighting 

Optimizing the use of natural light into the interiors of a built space is called Daylighting. Understanding the sun’s path and the amount of sunlight filtering in enhances the overall space aesthetic. Studies have shown that an improved daylight factor enhances the physical and mental well-being of the users of the space. 

types of loads_©www.velux.com

Ventilation 

Ensuring movement of air inside the built space through the appropriate placement of windows and openings is an integral part of designing. Understanding wind direction, heat transfer or thermodynamics helps in designing spaces efficiently. 

As a student of architecture who was drawn towards space making over other aspects of design, I was under the impression that the understanding of physics and technicalities of construction come under a civil engineer’s purview. Overtime, it has become apparent that to understand how a structure is standing becomes a primary aspect in an architect’s scope of work. 

Author

Anusha Kiran is an Architecture Student from Bangalore who frequently dances, seldom sketches, is always seen with a book in hand and terribly misses playing basketball.

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