Fill, flow, track: Modelling environmental exchange

Lisa Moffitt

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


In an interview tracing the history of physical scientific models, historian of science Graham Burnett makes the distinction between analogical models and ontological models . An analogical model, he suggests, is one in which an understanding of the attributes or traits of a model can be reasonably applied by analogy to the physical traits or attributes of the scaled thing that it is modeling. An ontological model, however, tests or reveals “the actual forces and stuff at issue”; the model is no longer a stand-in for a projected reality; it effectively replicates or even becomes the condition being modeled. Graham argues that it is the indeterminacy or the flipping between the “as” and the “is” where models are most potent.

In architectural design, physical models typically operate analogically; we use scaled models to test proportional relationships and spatial adjacencies, foregrounding the physical, inert materials of construction over the energetic exchanges that occur upon and within these materials. Despite the importance of understanding environmental exchanges on the physical environment, methods for visualizing these ebbs and flows range from the overly diagrammatic environmental diagram to the overly prescriptive computational fluid dynamic analysis.

This paper reflects on a lineage of practioners, starting with Victor Olgyay, and more recently Alan Berger and Guy Nordenson, that use physical models to test environmental conditions that fill, flow, and track. Models that test these shifting conditions, often through wind tunnel and water bath tests, exist in this fertile zone between the analogical and the ontological; they both replicate actual forces while also operating as a stand in for a projected reality. I reflect on student work from two third year design studios, Drawing Energy Abu Dhabi and Drawing Energy Kerrera. These reflections explore the role of physical models for testing environmental conditions, contextualize this practice within a broader lineage and speculate about the implications of working with models that operate in this rich liminal zone between the analogical and ontological.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationTheory by Design
Subtitle of host publicationArchitectural research made explicit in the design studio
EditorsEls De Vos, Johan De Walsche, Marjan Michels, Sven Verbruggen
Number of pages8
ISBN (Print)9789057182242
Publication statusPublished - 8 Mar 2013
EventTheory by Design - Antwerp, Belgium
Duration: 29 Oct 201231 Oct 2012


ConferenceTheory by Design


  • Environmental Modelling, Wind Tunnel, Water Bath, Olgyay

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