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Green architecture experiences accelerated growth

by SuperiorInvest

This article is part of our special section Design on innovative surfaces in architecture, interiors and products.


On the list of climate villains, architecture stands out above many. Construction industries account for about 37 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, according to the United Nations Environment Program. Three of the most commonly used building materials – concrete, steel and aluminum – generate almost a quarter of all carbon production.

But there is progress. The use of renewable organic materials such as wood, hemp and bamboo is expanding. Carbon-absorbing plants and trees are more widely integrated into architectural design. And even concrete is losing its stigma with the development of low-carbon varieties.

Architects concerned with sustainability are adopting these materials in buildings that are not only more environmentally sensitive but also look and feel different from the concrete and steel boxes of modernism.

One of the most potent symbols of the green building revolution (at least in the public imagination) is the plant-covered skyscraper. Designs for overgrown buildings can be found in the portfolios of international architects such as Jean Nouvel, Norman Foster, Lina Ghotmeh, Thomas Heatherwick and Kengo Kuma, to name just a few.

However, no one has done more to promote these types of structures than the Milanese architect Stefano Boeri, who calls his creations Vertical Forests.

The original Vertical Forest, a pair of residential towers with facades incorporating around 800 trees, 5,000 shrubs and 15,000 plants, opened in Milan in 2014. Since then, Boeri has completed around a dozen more examples, the most recent in Huanggang, China, and the Dutch city of Eindhoven.

“What we have done is use plants, not as decoration,” but as “a kind of biological skin,” Boeri said. Greenery shades and cools, regulates humidity and absorbs carbon dioxide and pollution. It also serves as a habitat for birds and insects and creates a direct and immediate connection between residents and nature.

Buildings “are always evolving and changing with the seasons,” said Boeri, who has future projects — some, entire towns — in various stages of development in places like Cairo, Dubai and the Mexican resort city of Cancun.

Some critics have dismissed the Vertical Forest concept as greenwashing or eco-bling, arguing that the environmental benefits are negated by the high-carbon concrete and steel needed to support the weight of the trees and plants. Boeri said studies by engineering firm Arup found only a 1 percent increase in carbon dioxide emissions related to the construction of the Vertical Forest buildings. He added that his company now typically used precast concrete panels and was exploring the possibility of building with wood, where necessary, to reduce its carbon footprint.

Boeri recognizes the limited environmental impact of individual buildings, but emphasized the importance of linking “biodiversity hotspots with a network of other green systems.” He imagines that in the future there could be “safe” forest cities.

One metropolis that is taking steps in that direction is Singapore. Policies aimed at bringing nature to Singapore's urban center have produced an urban landscape dotted with buildings incorporating extensive greenery, including several by local company WOHA.

Among WOHA's best-known designs are the recently completed Pan Pacific Orchard hotel, with its expansive garden terraces filled with plants, and the Oasia Hotel Downtown, a 30-story tower wrapped in a red mesh trellis woven with nearly two dozen creeping species. vines.

“The permeable habitable façade is part of the passive strategies we implemented to cool the building, reduce energy consumption and create a relaxing biocentric space,” said Wong Mun Summ, co-founder of WOHA. Studies have shown that the exterior is up to 68 degrees Fahrenheit colder than nearby glass-walled structures, he said. If expanded enough, infusions of greenery could help repair so-called urban heat islands created by expanses of asphalt, concrete, glass and steel.

The heat island effect is a common problem in Asia's megacities, where rapid development has erased many traces of nature. In Chengdu, China, which is now adding park space and encouraging urban greenery, Winy Maas, founding partner of MVRDV in Rotterdam, is working on a 500-foot-tall office tower with terraced gardens that cascade from a wooded roof to the end. down.

“This is one of the first tall towers to have outdoor, walkable, interconnected space,” he said of the design, which includes a sculptural metal mesh enclosure around the floors to soften potentially damaging rain and winds. “At 150 meters high, the wind can dry them out or kill them.”

Carlo Ratti, an Italian architect and director of the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, elected curator of the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2025, is taking the greenery-clad skyscraper in another direction. A couple of years ago, he unveiled a proposal for what he described as the world's first “agricultural scraper,” in Shenzhen, China.

Dubbed Jian Mu Tower, the 51-story building will be wrapped in a vertical hydroponic farm. Ratti has estimated that his plan could produce enough produce annually to feed 40,000 people. His Turin studio is working on prototype modules for the façade.

“At this critical moment, what we architects do matters more than ever,” Ratti said. “Every kilowatt-hour of solar energy, every unit of zero-carbon housing, and every calorie of sustainably sourced vegetables will multiply throughout history.”

Another tool for achieving zero-carbon buildings is one of the oldest and most common building materials: wood. Valued for sequestering carbon dioxide and keeping it out of the atmosphere for decades, if not centuries, the wood is now widely used to form components of so-called mass timber, made from compressed, fire-resistant layers.

Among the wooden buildings completed by the New York-based Bjarke Ingels Group, also known as BIG, is a new production facility for the Norwegian furniture company Vestre, “the most environmentally friendly factory in the world,” as Mr. Ingels, who is Danish, described it, in a forest near Magnor, Norway.

The star-shaped building is topped with a green roof and solar panels that improve its energy efficiency. “It's a pretty striking factory to work in because of the warmth and texture of all the wood,” the architect said. He noted that the local wood even had a pleasant smell.

Jeanne Gang is another architect with an affinity for wood. Her Chicago-based company, Studio Gang, just completed an academic building and student housing for Kresge College in Santa Cruz, California. Gently curved wood-frame residential structures hide within the densely forested site, and their textured wood exteriors echo the surrounding redwoods. . Ms. Gang described the material choices as “an ecological and poetic response to Kresge's stunning surroundings.”

An equally evocative effect, in a very different context, is achieved in the new terminal at Kempegowda International Airport in Bengaluru, India, designed by Chicago-based Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, or SOM. Conceived as “a model of sustainable development, but also as a new experience of connection with nature,” said SOM director Peter Lefkovits, the terminal is highlighted by the use of engineered bamboo, which covers the columns and overlaps in lattice layers along the entire surface. ceiling. The design also incorporates hanging plants, lush walls of greenery and water features.

“The idea was to create a building that looked almost like a garden pavilion, with the openness and filtered light qualities,” Lefkovits said. This was the first time his 88-year-old company had used bamboo, a highly sustainable and renewable material due to its rapid growth.

Architects are also turning to other natural materials that sequester carbon, such as hemp, flax and algae. Henning Larsen, an international company based in Copenhagen, recently used reeds to create its first thatched façade for a new primary school in southern Denmark.

The choice of the thatched roof, which gives the building's exterior a slightly shaggy organic texture, was inspired by the local tradition of using wheat as façade cladding, said Jakob Stromann-Andersen, director of Henning Larsen.'s sustainability and innovation team. Everything about the horseshoe-shaped building's design, he added, was intended to “reinforce connections between the classroom and nature,” including a walkable green roof that descends and blends into the landscape at both ends.

Organic fibers are also being incorporated into composites such as hemp or mixed into bioresin panels that are durable enough for building facades. These types of materials are considered essential in the race towards more sustainable buildings, as are bricks with recycled content and low-carbon concrete, which are increasingly being used. Researchers are also experimenting with adding carbon-absorbing algae to concrete to achieve mixes with net-zero or even negative emissions.

“We cannot simply rely on natural materials, because there is simply not enough wood and bamboo to build all the buildings we need,” said Yasemin Kologlu, who heads SOM's Climate Action Group. “We cannot continue building as we are, but there is no miracle solution. It has to be the culmination of maybe more than 30 different strategies for us to get there.”

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