Assignment 4: Energy flows of The Thermal Baths by Peter Zumthor



Thermal Baths

            The Thermal Baths at Vals, done by Peter Zumthor, is an amazing example of a series of systems that come together to create a unique experience. The baths uses the only natural thermal springs for the heating of water and the building to create a relaxing experience for those who visit. I am interested in seeing the interaction of the systems of elements such as sound, water, concrete, and light to create such a wonderful mesmerizing experience. By tracking how the earth creates heat that begins to warm water and produce steam to begin heating the building and its water, we can understand how Zumthor planned the use of materials to help retain the heat and diffuse it. It is interesting that he chose concrete because of the range of temperatures that concrete can inhibit depending on the temperature around it. Then, I would like to see how that then translates to our feelings when we enter the different temperatures. By understanding these relationships, we can begin to see how the body responds to different extremes in temperature and how body absorbs and releases energy in almost the same way as a material such as concrete.

The first step of this energy flow begins in the mantle of the earth where pressure from gravity pushing every part of the earth towards its center causes rocks of the earth to melt and give off heat. Due to the fact that heat rises and creates pressure, the heat then rises towards the crust and begins to heat the underground springs. These springs give off steam, like Old Faithful, that are used as geothermal energy for electricity or in this case, heating and cooling. Now in the Thermal Baths at Vals, Switzerland uses the heat from the thermal springs to heat the waters within the spa itself.

This Diagram shows how gravity causes the layers of earth to compact and be pushed down toward the center of the Earth. As this happens, heat builds up, rises to the crust of the earth and begins to heat the springs. The Earth is also heated from the Sun.

From the Earth to the Slab

In the Thermal baths at Vals, Peter Zumthor combined gneiss, a local stone, with concrete to create the walls and floor of the spa. By using the combination of natural stone and concrete, it creates a thermal mass that conducts heat faster than concrete mixed with other aggregates. This allows for the earth to heat the spring which, in turn, heats the concrete slabs of the spa. Concrete allows for the energy transferred from the spring to the wall to be stored within the mass itself, heating up the wall faster but retains the energy for longer periods of time. Concrete is very energy efficient because it releases energy slower than many other materials. Using concrete also keeps the temperature differences between pools consistent, due to the ability to retain energy.

From Slab to the Body

The human body is an essential part of the design of the Thermal Baths. It takes into consideration all five senses of the body by implementing different experiences that caters to at least one sense at any given moment. One of the senses that are exploited throughout the spa is the sense of touch. The interaction between the temperature of the water and the body of an occupant in the spa occurs by touching the water. The body has a temperature range that it has to stay within to function. 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit is the average body temperature for a healthy human. If the core body temperature gets hotter than that, the body releases water to cool the body down or in the case of the body temperature gets colder, muscles in the body begin to contract and expand quickly to release energy and heat to warm the body. As an occupant first enters the spa, there is a time period of getting adjusted to the water. This is the body losing or gaining energy to the surrounding water. Skin is a conductor which means it allows energy to be gained or lost. This is why we wear coats in the winter and not during the summer because the coat insulates us and retains the energy we would otherwise lose to the outside air surrounding us. In the pools, however, little can insulate the occupant from losing energy. So we feel less comfortable in cold or hot water. The water has to be around our core body temperature to feel comfortable to us. In the Thermal baths, there are three different pools called the Fire bath, the Iced bath, and the Sound bath. The Fire bath is a pool filled with hot water that eases the muscles, while the iced bath causes muscles to tense up. Because physics says that heat moves from something warm to something cold, this may be the reason why we react to cold water in such a strange manner. When we are in cold water, we are heating up the water surrounding us, which is why we get adjusted to the water temperature after a while. The same goes for the Fire bath. As the water is heating us up, the energy from the pool is being transferred into our bodies to equal out the difference. This explains why our bodies are so hot when we get out of a hot shower (or in this case pool) and steam is coming off. So when the occupant moves from the Fire bath to the Iced bath, the water feels colder than if they had just went into the Iced bath first. The body has to lose more energy to become equal to the temperature of the water. In a way, our bodies act in the same way as the concrete, absorbing and losing energy to maintain the same temperature of the surroundings.

Diagram of Energy Transfer from the Earth to the Slab of concrete and water

Peter Zumthor channeled energy that essentially came from the rock of which the building sat on. We traced the creation of heat from the center of the earth to the springs, the concrete, the water, and finally the human body to give a unique experience in feeling comfort, relaxation, and peace in such extreme conditions. As the Law of Conservation of Energy states, energy is neither created nor destroyed, we saw that energy was just passed between two objects, the speeding of transfer depending on the material it is going through. Any energy used is given back in some form at some time. To take it a step further and to look within the human body, skin cells have receptors. When a stimulus reaches the receptor (let’s say temperature), the receptor the fires signals (which uses energy) to neurons, which relays those signals to the brain. The brain sends the message to all muscles whether to begin shivering, jumping, or relaxing, which gives back the energy that set off the receptor. In the process of relaying the messages, the billions of neurons that acted as a telephone wire are covered with covered with myelin sheath, which insulate the electrical signal so that no energy is lost and is the reason why our brain responds so fast. So if the water was extremely hot as we stepped in, we would immediately step back just as fast as we stepped in.

Shows the structure of the Neuron

Shows the pathway a stimulus would take to cause a reflex. This same diagram can be used to show the pathway it would take to cause shivering or sweating.

The energy loss and gain of the body
The energy loss and gain of the body

“Thermal Spa.” Archidose. N.p., June 1991. Web. 1 Nov. 2011. <;.

Wallace, O. Wise Geek. Ed. Bronwyn Harris. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Nov. 2011. <;.

Bziotas, Euripides. “Therme Vals by P. Zumthor Concept.” Scribd. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Nov. 2011. <;.

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One Response to Assignment 4: Energy flows of The Thermal Baths by Peter Zumthor

  1. here says:

    I Will have to return again whenever my course load lets up – however I am getting your Feed so i can read your blog offline. Cheers.

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