Research Group

Physical Ambiences (GRAP)


The GRAP was funded in 1997 at the School of architecture at Laval University. It gathers five professors-researchers and a dozen graduate students dedicated to the creation of sustainable architecture. Activities of the GRAP are performed in continuity with the main evaluation tools such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and the European HQE (Haute qualité environnementale).


Lighting, thermal and acoustical environments

The GRAP proposes an integrated approach to the study of the luminous, thermal and acoustical ambiences in the design process. For this purpose, the GRAP utilizes research laboratories and equipments for the analysis of environments at these three levels. Moreover, the GRAP develops tools for the design and analysis of physical phenomena in architectural applications.



“In the current context of sustainable development, how can the architect respond simultaneously to the technical requirements of comfort, health and energy while not yielding to a purely technical approach? Is architecture known as “green” reducing its role as a place for aesthetical, social and cultural experimentation or can it improve this mission? We will answer this question by proposing that the architectural design essentially constitutes a process of creating physical ambiences by the “bricolage savant” of matter and energy. This approach could thus not be limited to the resolution of technological and empirical matters, but should necessarily raise the question of space perception and critical judgment in architecture. ”

Adolphe, Luc dans Les cahiers de la recherche architecturale


Consequently appear new issues related to the interpretation, prediction and representation of an ambiences. The GRAP (Groupe de recherche en ambiances physiques) challenges this problematic through research and teaching within the integrated design studio and seminar concentration “Physical ambiences in architecture and urban environments” at the School of architecture, Laval University.


Objectives of the GRAP

  • Understand of the basic concepts related to the control of physical environments at the urban, architectural, and material scales by In Situ
  • Response to the physical characteristics (thermal, luminous and acoustical) of a site in the development of a strategy that controls physical ambiences of a project.
  • Knowledge and prediction of a physical ambience, qualitatively and quantitatively, using analogical and/or numerical tools.


Why control physical ambiences?

Upstream to the approach of physical ambiences resides nature, basis element that is omnipresent in any architectural project. As expression means between humans and nature expand, landscape becomes more meaningful, and greater become the possibility of symbolical and poetical interpretations of this landscape. The cyclic dynamics of the natural environment in terms of matter and energy thus constitutes a source of inspiration that favors the rediscovery of a sense of place and create original and functional solutions stimulating the senses. This nature-architecture relation has always been critical. It is now fed by a common preoccupation of safeguarding the natural landscapes, which generated important research activities in the area of building science towards new technical developments in terms of energy savings and resources. However, the recent experience shows that this deterministic approach often led to a dispossession by the occupant and the architect of the objects of comfort. Today, a transfer of science towards a re-humanization of the technology of comfort by qualitative analysis is observed, the prediction and the representation of interior and exterior space perception under the name of environmental controls in architecture, here described as control of physical ambiences.


Among perceptible qualities of a studied environment in the process of architectural design, three interdependent physical phenomena define this nature-architecture ratio more particularly: the thermal, lighting, and acoustical ambiences. The master’s degree program in physical ambiences thus proposes the study of these three distinct fields of knowledge within the vaster context of sustainable design to seize how the creation of a single environment is issued from the physical properties of site, space and material. In addition, it aims at defining the impacts on comfort and health of the occupants as well as impacts on the environment in terms of energy and resources. Physical environments thus refer to the quantitative (energy, matter) as well as qualitative aspects (perception of comfort, wellbeing and aesthetics) of the built environments. Such an approach proposes that the building should act as a filter between the interior and exterior to decrease energy consumption and to optimize users’ comfort by generating a clear architectural language and syntax. Therefore, the architect has the capacity to initially modulate this interface within the variables of architecture in the resolution of the energy/comfort equation then to integrate, whether necessary, the mechanical systems. This systemic approach requires an investigation at the urban (microclimatic local effects on buildings), architectural (spatial organization of the building), and material (physical/environmental properties of materials) scales.



Experience gained through practice shows that the representation of environments by numerical methods often constitutes an important linguistic barrier amongst professionals and users. Our approach supports the to analogical methods of simulation to support the iterative process of experimentation and error, suitable for the design stages. The extensive environmental tradition at Laval University’s School of architecture enables us the access to a hydraulic flume and an artificial sky, unique pieces of equipment within a school of architecture. Our research approach is thus based on the importance of being able to read, visualize and represent physical ambiences. Indeed, if several means already exist to visualize a luminous ambience, it is still very difficult to visualize a thermal or acoustical ambience. The research group valorizes the representation of physical ambiances to provide explorations using methods and tools for the evaluation and prediction of environmental performance. The controls of thermal, luminous and acoustical environments are therefore approached simultaneously according to the degrees of progress within the design process at the urban, architectural and detail.

The GRAP owns unique equipments for analogical and numerical simulations of the environment enabling sensitive (qualitative) and technical (quantitative) assessments of a physical phenomenon. This hybrid approach thus exploits the qualitative advantages and speed of execution of analogical tools, as well as the precision of numerical tools.


Towards a theory of architectural and urban physical environments

The deterministic approach of science and the prediction of the thermal, luminous and acoustical ambiences contributed during the 21st century to a progressive rupture between humans and nature and by extension between the interior and exterior. Diversity, or environmental variability suitable for nature, thus appeared limited to exterior spaces whereas the buildings became increasingly controlled mechanically. On the scale of the contemporary city, this deterministic approach created a double environmental isotropy: a negative exterior space often “very” uncomfortable and a positive interior space often “too” comfortable. The traditional cities however had a multitude of transition spaces such as narrow alleys, passages, courtyards, covered streets, whose characteristic favored the creation of places of environmental transactions, whether thermal, luminous and acoustically rich between the interior and exterior. Architecture, the city, and matter was forming a complex environmental filter creating unique ambiences.

Architects are presently witnesses and actors of a return towards a greater interior-exterior connection that is now imperative by the contemporary environmental challenge. This return is accompanied by a reinterpretation of the traditional archetypes and a better comprehension of their physical behaviors. Indeed, as Palladio, Alberti and Serlio were interested in daylighting by publishing principles primarily related to dimensioning of the openings, the only available technology at that period, they answered to the challenge of physical ambiences by the variables of architecture. Today, “hybrid” technologies of environmental controls offer designers new architectural and mechanical variables leading to the necessity of an apprehension of space using more complex tools and methods of analysis. The integrated experimental process enables to concretize and assume this process within a rigorous and creative manner. The study of physical ambiences enables architects tangible resources to validate its functional and/or aesthetical assumptions. Amongst the variables available to designers, the opening constitutes a genuine “environmental switch” and a place of expression, often dramatic, of this interior-exterior relation.

A physical ambience, if it is true that it can only exist by the technical resolution of matter and energy, is issued from the sensitive universe of the architect, upstream to the project and its capacity to deliver ideas within a coherent system that responds to the user’s needs while minimizing its ecological imprint. At this critical moment in history, the teaching of architecture of purely technical considerations related to sustainable development appears to dominate. The approach using physical ambiences, as proposed by the GRAP, supports a sensitive and fundamental reflection on the integration of matter and energy at all scales within the design activity.

Claude Demers and André Potvin






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Coordinator : Claude Demers |

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