Gimme a Thermal Break: Ban Balconies That Don’t Have Them

©. MOD developments/ look at all those pretty radiator fin balconies

Balconies are becoming more popular among condo buyers. It's time to start building them right.

Writing in the Globe and Mail, John Lorinc looks at the design of condo towers in Toronto and notes that exterior balconies have become a “must-have,” not just because of the outdoor space they provide but also because of the aesthetics.

Increasingly, they're also being pressed into service as a means of creating an aesthetic signature for very tall buildings..."The balconies go beyond outdoor living space," MOD chief executive Gary Switzer says. "They become part of the sculptural shape of the building."
Aqua Tower balconies
CC BY 2.0. John Picken

John Picken/CC BY 2.0

Lorinc talks to architect Andre D'Elia, a regular on TreeHugger, about the building that started an intense discussion about balconies:

One of the most sensuous examples, says Andre D'Elia, a principal at Superkul, is Studio Gang's Chicago's Aqua Tower, which is clad in a cascading sequence of asymmetrical fins that project from the façade. They have a social objective as well as an aesthetic one, he adds: They've been configured to allow residents to interact with one another from their balconies. "It's a noble idea."

© Linas Dapkus via IRtalk

The Aqua Tower is also the poster child for the biggest problem with North American balconies: the fact that they are radiator fins, radiating heat from the building, making living spaces uncomfortable, in this case combined with floor to ceiling glass to make the building a model of everything you shouldn’t do. Ted Kesik, an expert on building science who is also quoted in the article, called it “architectural pornography.” His description on what it feels like to be this building:

Take your clothes off, attach a series of highly conductive fins, like the kind they put on motorcycle engines, to the skeleton of your body, and go stand outside in January.
CC BY 2.0. Lloyd Alter/ Gimme a break

Lloyd Alter/ Gimme a break/CC BY 2.0

The solution to this problem exists; there are many different designs for thermal breaks that support balconies without acting like radiator fins. These are required in much of Europe but not in North America because they are expensive, and we can’t have that. The customers aren't willing to pay for it. As one representative told me a few years ago:

The customer wants hardwood flooring and a granite kitchen counter and for that they pay. No one is interested in the R-value for windows or the balcony. As long as the energy prices are so low in North America and the clients buy what the market provides, it is doubtful that there will be a change in thinking about energy efficiency.

But thermal breaks aren't just about energy savings, they are also about comfort; the rep continued, describing what it will be like to live in Aqua, with those giant balconies and floor to ceiling glass:

Imagine standing bare foot in front of a non-insulated balcony in Chicago in a harsh winter. You will definitely need to wear boots in your apartment. In Europe the question is not whether I should insulate the balcony or not, it is a question of which supplier to use.

According to Lorinc, the trend is toward inset balconies. One developer notes that “they make sense because they provide more protection from the elements.” But they also increase surface area and if not thermally broken, suck heat out of the building on three sides instead of one. In Europe, they have a solution for that too:

balcony with glass

© Lumon/ balcony with glass enclosure

Prof. Kesik, however, notes that in many Nordic cities, inset balconies are used in combination with retractable enclosures, such as those designed by Lumon. "They extend the period of comfortable use by inhabitants and provide shelter from the wind and rain, converting desolate spaces into outdoor rooms."

If, as Lorinc suggests, public demand for balconies is increasing, then perhaps it’s finally time to make thermal breaks mandatory under the building code, as it is in most of Europe. That's the only way it's going to happen.