Forms of Energy #5

Quartiere Violino, Brescia. The extension of the Violino district in Brescia, designed by Boschi + Serboli Architetti Associati, in collaboration with Cigognetti-Piccardi-Vitale shows that low-cost building can be combined with environmental awareness.

A strong feature of the Violino district project is its extensive use of photovoltaic technology, which number-wise makes Brescia one of the Italian cities with the greatest installed power pro capita and in terms of form has turned the district into a mosaic of blue roofs. It is not only the photovoltaics that make the Violino project interesting. Although photovoltaic technology is the visually most striking sign of a sustainable design, other strategies focusing on the envelope or systems design may be more silent but are equally important.

A dual network that separates drinking and non-drinking water, a rainwater collection system that distributes it in the aquifer, district heating, induction hobs and passive bioclimatic solutions all make Violino a fascinating district and perhaps one of the most significant experiments in low-cost social housing in recent years because it has shown that the needs of low-cost building can be combined with energy and environmental awareness.

The design of this type of district was made possible both by the administration's ability to adopt innovative instruments during the decision-making process and on site and by the designers' ability to operate within the narrow confines of an Area Plan in which the set form of the sites, building regulations and town-planning restrictions appeared to leave little room for manoeuvre in the search for innovative solutions.

This extension project has a long and fascinating history. The district first originated in 1980, with the Brescia master plan drawn up by Secchi, ViganĂ² and Scarsato but the most important date for our purposes is 2002, when the City of Brescia issued a competitive tender for the assignation and construction of building sites for the southwest expansion. The announcement was extremely innovative and concretely shaped a request for the submitted proposals to meet requirements that would steer the construction of the district towards quantifiable quality objectives. it showed a desire to "measure" the quality and sustainability of the design but also to compare the costs of such requisites with those of the standard requirements for low-cost and social housing. In particular, in keeping with the procedure established, the preliminary designs were assessed by awarding points, based on their compliance with building and performance quality requisites (e.g. thermal acoustic and hygrometric insulation). This made it physically possible to separate the standard costs from those linked to the quality innovations introduced.

In building terms, the project was to reiterate the type already adopted in the Violino district. The built project consists in terraced housing (143 units in all) and two five-storey apartment blocks, arranged in lots within an orthogonal grid. In keeping with the principles of bioclimatic architecture and compatibly with the already established general organisation, the buildings were given a design suited to their function as solar collectors, capable not only of capturing the sun's heat but also of keeping it inside the structure (via the choice of suitable materials and technology systems). The design of the terraced houses and blocks was based on a simple principle: "protection" to the north and "capture" to the south. The functional organisation and choice of materials and systems technology all obeyed the same rule.

The terraced houses are built in two different types but to the same simple principle: the functional layout is studied so that the storage/bathroom spaces and stairwells, closed by heavy insulating doors, act as a buffer space to the north and the most lived-in parts of the house are arranged around conservatories on the south side. The use of sun-blinds and deciduous trees stops the glazed areas overheating in summer. The single units are arranged to minimise any overshadowing of adjacent units. Volumetrically, one type features the rotation of the south-facing side of the building, which detaches from the main building mass to configure a conservatory on the ground floor. The other presents an extremely simple mass, dictated by the shape of the site. The need to capture solar energy and place it at the disposal of the house users is translated into two conservatories, one on the ground floor adjacent to the living room and the other on the first floor. Every terraced house has a photovoltaic system with a nominal power of 1.3kWp set on the sloping roof and each house has a meter for the energy produced, meaning users can verify proper system efficiency at all times. The energy exchanged with the grid is measured by a two-way meter; information displays in communal spaces illustrate the apartment block system's production.

On a final note, the Violino project seems a total success, showing that "low-cost and social" solutions are compatible with quality objectives and technology that saves and produces energy. However, we cannot but wonder (and ask the designers and even more so those who dictated the rules) whether so much uniformity and repetition was really so essential. In other words, what is truly lacking when we look at the Violino project is spatial variety, individuality and articulation. This is no random question or whim. We must remember that the quality of the space we live in is based partly, and perhaps principally, on its ability to stimulate our senses and our minds, and that the information (stimulus) lies precisely in difference, that something different that suddenly asks us to think (opens up a horizon). Alessandra Scognamiglio, Marialuisa Palumbo

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