Natural climate system for Erasmus University

Once again, a large building in Holland displays the equally futuristic and natural climate system Earth, Wind & Fire. The special technique developed by Ben Bronsema is being used in the new multifunctional education building (MFOII) at Erasmus University Rotterdam. The building will be delivered by BAM Bouw en Techniek on Thursday 10 November.

Dennis van Zwieten, project manager for mechanical installations at BAM Bouw en Techniek, also noted that it is a remarkable project. There is a lot of interest in it, according to Van Zwieten: “Everyone wants to know something about it. What I like myself: you work with conventional techniques, but you connect them in a different way. There are things that you usually don’t have to find out yourself, but can simply buy based on a specification. That is not possible here. There is no brochure, nothing to be found on the internet and there is only one example project: Four Elements Hotel Amsterdam, formerly Hotel Breeze. We learned a lot about that, but in this case we mostly had to restructure the project because it is on a different scale.”

Earth, wind and fire

The Earth Wind & Fire (EWF) concept was developed by engineer Ben Bronsema, who received his doctorate in 2013. The concept makes maximum use of natural principles to climate a building. It starts on the roof, where a roof structure catches the wind and pushes it into a shaft, with or without fans. In that shaft – the Climate Cascade – the air is sprayed with water. This clears the air and creates downward pressure.

At the bottom of the building, the air from the shaft passes through a heat exchanger and is preheated depending on the desired temperature in the building. The air then goes up again in another shaft and from there reaches the rooms. A third architectural shaft – the Solar Chimney – together with the so-called Ventec roof ensures that the dirty air leaves the building again. Two of these systems are built in the university building.

Discover more Earth, Wind & Fire backgrounds in this video:


BAM’s choice of EWF in the new university building is a matter of courage, together with an open attitude on the part of the client and advisers. And the timing is also important, it turns out. In the request from Erasmus University Rotterdam, a lot of effort was put into sustainability and these aspects were indeed rewarded in the weighting. In addition, a competitive dialogue gave room for the market to come up with its own ideas. Integral project manager Gijs Leffers (BAM Bouw en Techniek): “The fact that the customer turned out to be intrinsically motivated to build a truly sustainable building gave us, as the client, the comfort to raise the level of ambition even higher.”

Furthermore, the EWF principles were already known in BAM. Leffers: “Around the time the tender was submitted, the internal question was asked whether we had a project in our portfolio that could be suitable for the use of EWF. The tendered MFOII turned out to be one of them.” Also the parties with whom BAM realizes the construction – Paul de Ruiter Architects, installation consultant Halmos and LBP | Syn (consultant for, among other things, building physics and prepares various calculations) – proved to be motivated to get started with EWF.

Exciting concept

The dialogue round in the tender subsequently gave BAM the opportunity to pitch EWF to the university. Leffers: “It’s an exciting concept that demands a lot from the customer. At the same time, we as BAM wanted to have a chance to win the tender. It was therefore nice to be able to check whether Erasmus University was open to this solution. The good response to this gave us enough comfort. We have made it an integral part of the plan.”

Natural climate system for Erasmus University

Erasmus University Rotterdam’s new multifunctional educational building.

An ideal opportunity to stick your neck out as a developer, Leffers continues. “At BAM, the ambition to do sustainable things is suffocating, but in the construction industry you have to deal with many things that are competitive. It is therefore not always possible to build as sustainably as one would like. Due to the circumstances, this project succeeded. Of course, we prefer to do it much more often.”

Two years of maintenance

As a contractor, BAM is responsible for the entire contract (Design & Build based on UAVgc) and then also for two years of maintenance. “We have put quite a lot of effort into this because we stand for an integrated functioning system that cannot be divided into traditional rooms. Primarily, we run the risk,’ says Leffers.

From an early stage, all involved met weekly to incorporate all elements of the EWF concept. Van Zwieten: “If we ran into something technical, we included it in the architectural preparation and mirrored it with Paul de Ruiter Architects. It has really been a joint process.”

Take the application of the roof structure venturi hoods. Van Zwieten: “Aesthetics were important there, but that aesthetic was a bit counterproductive to the technical installation aspect. You may want to make it look nice, but this places restrictions on, for example, the passage of air. It has been a constant consideration. In my opinion, Paul de Ruiter would think twice.”

Traditional PvE

It was difficult for the installation technical elaboration that the requirements sheet was completely focused on a traditional climate system. Van Zwieten: “You would prefer this to be handled in a more flexible and practical way because you’re really dealing with a fundamentally different concept here. The high demands slightly detract from the durability of the EWF concept. It is based on natural principles and you don’t always know what to expect. Compare it to an open window: depending on the wind, more or less air comes in through it. On the other hand, it is difficult for a school building. All in all, we had to put in a lot of capital to meet the traditional request.”


BAM is therefore also responsible for two years of maintenance and management. In this way, the university’s own maintenance service can become familiar with the EWF system. Leffers: “It also gives us the opportunity to fine-tune and refine it further if necessary. I think it’s a win-win construction for both parties.”

This aspect has been carefully considered during the design and construction phase. How do you want to keep the facade of the solar chimney clean, or the cascade chute? How do you maintain the fans? Here, too, the following applies: there is no plan for it in the drawer. Van Zwieten: “We have to admit that we don’t know a number of things. The frequency of cleaning the shafts, for example. We flush the incoming air with water there. Cleaning is ongoing, we have invested extra in that. But once the shaft needs to be cleaned. We’ve made arrangements for that as well. How often will that be necessary? That’s an estimate.”

The application of EWF in the Four Elements Hotel Amsterdam has generated some specific experiences and problems in terms of maintenance. Wooden doors in damp rooms in the basement? Hopefully not. View with glass? It was nice to be able to show the system to visitors and users of the building, but given all the ledges and architectural contexts that would then arise, BAM chose to keep the shafts closed.
Leffers: “The system creates an enormous airflow in the shaft. So you don’t want somewhere near such a window to still have a crack where dirty air is created. These are choices we made after our visit to the Amsterdam hotel. Because of how the concept works, I found it absolutely necessary to close the shaft completely.”

Lessons learned

Now that the builders first realized EWF, there are already things they would do differently next time. Leffers: “Not conceptually different, but practical. Such as the design and placement of the shafts and certain material choices. They are experiences which we will take with us to the next project.”

Whether this actually happens is primarily up to the customers. “There is interest in how we have done this. This is because everyone is increasingly involved in sustainability – whether forced or intrinsically motivated. Then you get to a point where the most durable device is turned on and the best glass is used. So what’s the next step? Looking at fundamentally new concepts, and it is an evolution in that.”

Finally, what for project manager Van Zwieten is absolutely clear: If customers are open to sustainable alternative solutions, there are builders like BAM who want to give it a creative interpretation. “It’s a trade-off. The dialogue we’ve had here is absolutely important.”

Text: Paul Diersen / EWFlab
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