The Housing Tower at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, designed by Peter Rose + Partners, is likely to be a milestone for energy conscious design and construction for many years into the future. It remains an example, rare in North America, of the simple efficiency of water-based radiant cooling and heating. Constructed with a systems density comparable, metaphorically, to a modern day automobile, it packs its 80 rooms into a volume 30% less than conventional construction would allow, and uses less than half the energy. The footprint was reduced to minimize the project’s stance in the landscape, and truculent zoning codes limited maximum building height, so rooms have 7′-6″ ceiling height typically, reduced to 7′-0″ under the micro-service-chases built into the entry and bathroom ceiling.
With fresh outside air and no recirculated heating and cooling air, a dormitory room is as fresh as standing outside. Careful design of the space and energy systems creates a minimally appointed room with no sacrifice of comfort.
While photographing, I stayed in the building for two days, moving in and out of many of the guest rooms, single mindedly following the light and incidentally basking in their peace and comfort, and it was only after the second day that I remembered: during design, many critics considered the dimensions of these dormitories to be uncomfortably too small. Yes, dimension and proportion are critical. However, historic and cultural minimums are often not examples of our best design, but rather standards developed to prevent bad design from being worse. The critics were relying on an abstract sense of dimension, and couldn’t understand the feeling of space embedded in the design. Now, walking into the finished building provides a living demonstration that, properly considered, comfortable spaces do fit into small dimensions. Kripalu shows that, ultimately, one can go small and still get it quite right.
What is visible in Kripalu goes deep into its structure. A hand on a concrete wall feels its ability not only to keep the guest rooms quiet, but to hold the building up. Cedar slats salvaged from Hurricane Katrina bring a lovely aroma into the room when the window is opened. Sliding the solar screen into place, to reduce heat gain from the morning sun, one feels a connection to the wood, to the sun, and feels a palpable connection to the energy we use.
To photograph this building is to learn its place in the landscape, and to feel the value of materials carefully considered and confidently deployed.