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How the climate crisis has changed perspectives on city design

Architectural innovation will be absolutely vital to help us withstand life in a warmer world. What will future buildings look like and how can we adapt the ones that currently stand?  

Cities are nothing without their multi-storey buildings and iconic, shiny, glass skyscrapers.

We’ve become accustomed to gawking at their modern, funky shapes (the Shard and Gherkin come to mind) and hardly hesitate to kink our necks to admire their height – unmissable symbols of an advanced and economically thriving society.

There are now around 25,000 skyscrapers dotted around the world, and while they might look impressive, many are questioning whether continuing to build these colossal structures is worth the environmental cost.

Already, the building sector accounts for 38 percent of all energy-related CO2 emissions and uses an immense amount of finite natural resources such as sand and water for concrete and glass.

Making matters worse, these materials reflect sun and trap heat – warming up the surrounding environment. Can adding to our beloved cityscapes ever be sustainable?

‘There is nothing natural about skyscrapers’

Some don’t think so.

A proposal for a new 60-storey skyscraper in London is receiving significant pushback from the public after claiming that its design ‘takes inspiration from nature’.

Its architects say the exposed structure of the building can be likened to organic forms such as shells and leaves. In the image above, you can observe the central building with curved strokes, that perhaps look something like veins on leafy plants.

While it’s rather cutesy (and somewhat fitting for our time) to pitch mammoth, commercial city buildings as evoking the spirit of nature due to the shape of their outer metal ‘exoskeleton’, some just aren’t buying it.

‘Any firm that leads with some one-liner about inspiration from nature doesn’t get it. And if they got it, they probably would not be doing high rises,’ said a Disqus user on Dezeen.

It’s hard not to agree.

Skyscrapers produce thousands of tons of CO2 – London’s six most famous buildings pump out about 12,000 tons of the stuff annually – and incorporating ‘natural-looking’ features doesn’t exactly change that.

Studies have also shown that high-rises emit twice as much carbon and use more energy per square metre when compared to low-rise buildings. So as populations continue to grow rapidly in urban areas, how will we meet demands for sustainable housing and office spaces?


Time for innovation

If natural-looking, CO2 emitting concrete buildings aren’t appropriate in a world experiencing a climate crisis, what is? Wooden skyscrapers using mass timber, primarily spruce and pine, could be the answer.

High-rise buildings made from mass timber have already popped up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and in Skellefteå, Sweden. They’re also growing in popularity, with projects underway in Virginia, California, Tokyo, and London.

Using materials found in nature will help lower the overall carbon footprint of large buildings, with studies suggesting that swapping concrete for timber slashes total emissions generated by 20-30 percent.

Leading architects also point out that incorporating elements found in nature can provide a sense of calmness and closeness to the outdoors, which can help improve the mental health of those living in the city.

But environmentalists warn that if this method for building is adopted on a wide scale, forests around the world could be obliterated. To that, manufacturers assure that sourcing materials sustainably from suppliers that cut their wood specially to order will help avoid unnecessary logging.

Given that these buildings are fire-resistant, cost-efficient, and quicker to build, it’s likely we will see more contractors adopting the use of mass timber to build up our cities.

Time to adapt

And if the demand for wood does soar to unsustainable levels? We’ll need to look for other ways to adapt.

Luckily, a Dutch start-up named Respyre is working on a solution to help us turn traditional concrete buildings – and virtually any unused space in cities – into air-filtering, ecosystem supporting, CO2 absorbing giants.

Leader of the project Auke Bleij is working with his team to cover the outside of buildings with ‘bioreceptive’ concrete, which can be made from recycled materials and enables lush green moss to grow on its exterior.

Since moss has rhizoids instead of roots, using this concrete even during initial stages won’t diminish the strength of buildings. Bleij says the greenery actually protects the underlying concrete from weathering, ultimately extending the life of the structure.

The addition of moss can not only depollute the atmosphere, but it also cools surrounding air, helps to buffer noise pollution, and boosts biodiversity by providing habitats for small insects living on concrete surfaces.

Though some might be against the idea of their favourite cities turning completely green, it’s hard to argue with the benefits – especially as we ride out this summer’s persistent heatwaves.

So whether it’s moss-covered exteriors or timber-dominated interiors, it looks like the climate crisis is altering the way we view and design our cities for the better. Do you think city buildings can ever be sustainable?

 

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