Stupid is the New Black*


[ * You read that in Yoda’s accent, right? If not, go back and get it right.]

This is an open letter to all the Architects of the world and the Structural Engineers who in most part provide the surfaces upon which architects scribble their embellishments, and within which they fit their clients. (And I’ll add all the ‘Exterior Designers’ too, if there is such a category, and your Clients, just to cover all bases.)

That’s only about 50 million people, at a guess, so please excuse me if I seem a little nervous and tongue-tied. I’ve never spoken to so many people before. So let me cut to the chase: some of you are doing a very stupid thing!

Okay, sorry, maybe that’s a bit blunt. You’re all highly trained professionals with a lot on your mind like budgets, schedules, Next Year’s Prize in Architecture and Making A Building That Does Not Fall Down. So let me rephrase that: Some of you are forgetful.

Let’s roll back a decade or three. It’s summer. You’re three years old and you’re in your swimmers and you lean on someone’s black car. It’s a lesson in thermodynamics, but at the time you’re too busy screaming and clutching your burns to give it much thought. (I hope your parents didn’t shout at you, “You are very stupid!” I hope they kindly pointed out to you that ‘black cars get very VERY hot and please just don’t touch them, okay?’)

Okay, I’m exaggerating a little bit.

Later, as you journeyed through high school, you should have re-encountered this phenomenon in a science class or Science Education Centre. Since you’re in the building industry, you must have taken Physics. Do you remember the concept of the ‘perfect black body’? It’s on Wikipedia. Go look. Here are two quotes:

“A black body is an idealized physical body that absorbs all incident electromagnetic radiation, regardless of frequency or angle of incidence.”

“A black body in thermal equilibrium has two notable properties: 1) It is an ideal emitter: at every frequency, it emits as much energy as – or more energy than – any other body at the same temperature. 2) It is a diffuse emitter: the energy is radiated isotropically, independent of direction.”

No no no no no! Focus; please!!

Evidently, entirely too many of you have forgotten this. I base this assertion on the following observation: THERE ARE AN AWFUL LOT OF BUILDINGS PAINTED BLACK*, and more seem to be going up every week.

And now you protest; “It’s what the client wants!” “Oh but it’s so fashionable right now, darling!” “We wanted to make a statement!” “It’s the company’s signature colour!”

Uh-huh; uh-huh; yeah. But the PHYSICS, people, the PHYSICS!  What you are doing is throwing up massive piles of concrete and steel that play into the fundamental cycle of global warming. And a black building is the PERFECT player. Daytime; sunshine; & your thermal collectors are perfectly coloured to collect heat. Come night and gigawatts of heat re-radiates at a different wavelength, and gets trapped in the atmosphere.

Every sunny day, the buildings you wrote the specs for are contributing to global warming. It would be happening even without humanity filling the air with more and more CO2, but it’s worse now that we have. WORSE than that, however: These buildings need more air conditioning. That costs your clients more and more, and if the electricity is coming from coal – BAM! DOUBLE-BONUS FAIL POINTS! 

And it gets worse. Every engineer and every architect should know that materials expand and contract constantly. Painting a building black is just asking for trouble. The concrete is stressing to the max, the steel and the joints – ditto. What is the economic life of your building? What are the additional maintenance issues?

Black is bad. It is just bad.

I live in Australia. I see this practice everywhere, and it breaks my brain that highly paid, highly educated specialists are continuing to make such a fundamental error. It should be your duty to specify light colours, and advise your client that a black colour scheme will hasten the death of their building, give them higher power bills, and ruin their Green credibility (not to mention helping to destroy humanity.)

Anything less than that is a failure of your duty as engineers or architects.

I know you’re not stupid, but I want to shout! If you’re currently contributing to the world-wide placement a literally billions of tonnes of solar thermal collectors, all maximised to contribution their utmost to global warming, I beg you to stop.

Thank you for listening.

* For the sake of convenience, I’m calling all the kettles black. I know you’ll quibble; “Oh but my building isn’t black, it is ‘charcoal’.” Well I’m sorry but it’s still a case of “the PHYSICS, people, the PHYSICS!”. ‘Off-Black’ or ‘Midnight Grey’, or ’50 Shades of Charcoal’ or whatever you want to call it: the effects are the same, the costs and the consequences are the same. By one or two percentage points difference at most.

** DISCLOSURE: I aspired to be an architect since the age of 12 & subsequently attended the Auckland School of Architecture during the early 1970s. I can safely claim to have acquired three-fifths of an architectural degree. Later on, during the 90s, I designed two buildings, neither of them was painted black. I currently regard most modern architecture as utterly repugnant, especially that tragic fad called ‘deconstructionism’. You can read my opinion here:


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