Building on Evolution

The 2013 Lignacite Lecture

The Royal Society, London, 26th September 2013

As a building physicist, everywhere I look in the built environment I find evidence of underlying physical properties that may have influenced the choices of generations of builders. From structure to roof tiles to paint, the properties of certain materials and methods appear to have brought tangible benefits to buildings, despite these rarely being overtly recognised. In ‘Building on Evolution’, the 2013 Lignacite Lecture, I discussed some of the hidden physics that has probably influenced buildings across history and which could potentially point us to new opportunities for creating high performance, low impact buildings, that have not yet even been imagined.

Spectral Influence

I look at the importance of radiant transmission and absorption in the atmosphere on Earth’s climate and, using a bottle of water and some ink, demonstrate the impact of Carbon Dioxide on Global Warming.

Colour Matters

I have a look at how colours are formed in nature using my glass of red wine. I then discuss the possible significance of the historic choice of roof tile colour in sunny climates.

Evolved Wisdom

I believe that buildings have evolved to suit human needs across a wide range of different climates as a form of extended phenotype. I demonstrate this through the convergence of light levels chosen for living and working across cultures and time.

Learning from History

I often wonder whether we have learned sufficient lessons from historic construction. I believe that we need to understand more about indigenous construction techniques in order to influence genuinely sustainable future construction.


I described my inspiring recent trip to India, where I was able to contribute to development work by the Sri Aurobindo Society at Sharanam, their village development centre.


Rob Garvey, Lecturer in Construction Studies at University of Westminster, tweeted the lecture and has kindly captured the comments together on Storify.


Share your thoughts on this post:

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.