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What is Thermal Mass in Buildings?

The concept of thermal mass often arises when discussing energy efficiency and sustainable building design. But what exactly is thermal mass in buildings, and why is it important in building construction and operation?

Understanding thermal mass

Thermal mass acts as a heat battery within a building’s structure. At its core, the principle involves the capacity of materials to absorb, store, and release thermal energy. This property depends largely on two key characteristics of materials: density and specific heat capacity. A material’s density dictates how much energy (in the form of heat) it can store per unit volume. In contrast, specific heat capacity determines how much energy is required to change its temperature.

Materials with high thermal mass, such as concrete, bricks, and natural stone, share common features:

  • High Density: These materials are heavy and compact, allowing them to store significant amounts of heat.
  • Specific Heat Capacity: They can absorb much heat before they start to feel hot, which is crucial for delaying heat transfer from or into the surrounding environment.
  • Thermal Conductivity: This property affects the rate at which a material can absorb and transfer heat. Materials with high thermal mass usually have moderate to low thermal conductivity, allowing them to store heat for longer before releasing it.
Mechanisms of heat storage and release

The effectiveness of thermal mass is influenced by its ability to absorb heat when heat is abundant (like a sunny day) and release it during cooler periods (such as at night). The cycle involves:

  1. Absorption: During warmer periods, thermal mass materials absorb excess heat, reducing the heat load and keeping the indoor environment cooler.
  2. Storage: The heat is stored within the thermal mass until the surrounding temperature drops.
  3. Release: As temperatures cool, particularly at night, the stored heat is gradually released, warming the indoor environment.

This cycle helps to reduce temperature fluctuations, maintain a more consistent and comfortable indoor environment, and reduce the reliance on mechanical heating and cooling systems.

What affects thermal mass?

Several factors influence the effectiveness of thermal mass in a building:

  • Material: The density and specific heat capacity of the material are crucial. Concrete, brick, and stone have high thermal mass, whereas materials like wood have much less.
  • Placement: For thermal mass to be effective, it must be placed to effectively absorb heat from sunlight or from interior spaces.
  • Climate: Thermal mass is more effective in climates with significant temperature swings between day and night.
  • Insulation: Adequate insulation is necessary to ensure that the heat stored in the thermal mass doesn’t escape too quickly and is released when most needed.

Benefits of thermal mass in buildings

Incorporating thermal mass into building design brings several benefits:

  • Energy Efficiency: By moderating indoor temperatures, thermal mass reduces the need for heating and cooling, leading to lower energy use and cost savings.
  • Comfort: Buildings with good thermal mass can maintain more consistent indoor temperatures, which can be more comfortable to live and work in.
  • Reduced Environmental Impact: Using less energy for heating and cooling also reduces a building’s carbon footprint.
  • Longevity and Durability: Materials typically used for thermal mass, like concrete and stone, are also known for their durability and can improve a building’s structural longevity.

Applications of thermal mass in buildings

Today, architects and builders use thermal mass strategically to enhance building performance. Some common applications include:

Impact of EWI on thermal mass

External Wall Insulation (EWI) systems are designed to improve the thermal performance of buildings by adding insulation to the exterior of the building envelope. This can have several implications on how thermal mass inside the building behaves. Here’s an overview of how EWI impacts thermal mass:

1. Reduced Heat Flow

EWI significantly reduces the heat flow between the interior and exterior of a building. This reduction in heat flow means that the thermal mass inside the building (such as internal concrete walls or floors) becomes more effective at moderating the internal temperature. Since less heat escapes in winter or enters in summer, the thermal mass can maintain a more stable indoor climate, reducing the reliance on heating and cooling systems.

2. Shift in Thermal Lag

With EWI, the lag time — the delay between the hottest part of the day and the peak interior temperature — increases. The insulation layer slows down the rate at which the external temperature affects the internal mass. This means that in winter, the warmth stored in the building’s mass is retained longer, and in summer, it takes longer for the heat to penetrate indoors, helping to keep the building cooler during the day.

3. Decreased External Thermal Mass Effectiveness

The effectiveness of the external layers of the building as thermal mass is decreased by EWI. Because the insulation is placed outside, it prevents external structural elements, like brick or concrete walls, from absorbing and releasing thermal energy from and to the external environment. This shifts the burden of thermal regulation more to the internal thermal mass.

4. Potential for Overheating

While EWI is beneficial for retaining heat during colder months, it can potentially lead to overheating in the summer, especially in climates with high solar gain and mild nights. Since the insulation keeps the building warmer by retaining heat, without adequate night-time cooling or ventilation, the internal thermal mass may not release all its stored heat overnight, leading to higher indoor temperatures the following day.

5. Enhanced Overall Energy Efficiency

By adding EWI, the overall energy efficiency of a building is enhanced. The internal thermal mass works more effectively because the insulation helps maintain a more consistent interior environment. This reduces the energy demands for heating and cooling, leading to energy savings and improved comfort.

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