Can architecture combat climate change? Three architects discuss this crucial question for THE PLAN: Mario Cucinella, founder of MC A in Bologna; Ben van Berkel, co-founder of UNStudio in Amsterdam; and Bryant Lu, vice-chairman of Ronald Lu & Partners (RLP) in Hong Kong.
Rising temperatures, more droughts, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, more intense and more frequent storms that cause floods and landslides – the worrying frequency of news' stories like this is a reminder for all of us of the devastating effects of climate change. It’s becoming urgent to combat this by eliminating CO2 emissions in the atmosphere and, therefore, achieving climate neutrality – a goal that the European Union has set itself for 2050 with the European Green Deal.
While it’s true that climate change has always existed, environmental scientists and activists are focusing attention on the role played by humans in what is happening to the planet today.
Over the last 150 years – that is, since the pre-industrial period – human activities are estimated to have increased Earth’s global average temperature by about 1.8°F (1°C), with this number increasing by 0.36°F (0.2°C) every decade. The 2011–20 decade was the hottest on record.
Seen in terms of the environmental impact of each stage of their life cycle, buildings are responsible for a significant amount of atmospheric emissions as well as high energy consumption. According to the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction, buildings are responsible for 36% of global energy consumption and 37% of CO2 emissions (data for 2020 published in the 2021 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction).
Given these numbers, and the fact that every sector is being called upon to do its part in what has become a race against time to save the terrestrial ecosystem, it’s impossible not to ask the question, “Can architecture fight climate change?” Here are the thoughts of three professionals who need to find answers to this question every day in their studio’s work.
What role should architecture have in respect of climate change? Should architecture fight it, adapt to it or, in a way, both?
M.C.: The most important thing is that “fighting climate change” doesn’t become some meaningless slogan. It demands a genuine, ongoing, shared, and, in particular, cross-sectorial commitment. We’ve got no chance of reversing climate change with nothing but the goodwill of a small few or with uncoordinated actions. Architecture has to do its part by researching how to make buildings that have less environmental impact. I think we’re on the right track but also believe it’s a very long and complicated one. Of course, we also need to take into account how we live today, while also looking a little further ahead.
B.v.B.: Essentially, both. Because yes, architecture definitely has to play its part in fighting climate change, but in order to do that, we also have to adapt to it in terms of building resilience into design. We know that we urgently need to lower carbon emissions during both construction and operation of buildings. We also have to consider the carbon footprints of the materials we use: the levels of embedded carbon, where we source the materials from (transport distances), whether they too are from renewable sources and whether they can be re-used in a circular fashion when the building’s lifespan comes to an end. Creating positive impact in terms of the climate and the environment is a complex task with many different facets that have to be balanced during the design process - not least, because there is no perfect equation that can be applied to all buildings. Each building typology requires a different approach and all design decisions affect one and other. At the same time, we know that reaching targets will take time, while climate change continues. This means that we have to ensure that what we design today – be it buildings or cities - can successfully adapt to external challenges or demands that may arise in the future.
B.L.: Both. Climate change is real and the impacts are already being felt around the world. It is our collective duty to fight it in any way we can. As architects, we are in an interesting position: we are obliged to think one or two generations ahead, so we need to create solutions for that will deliver the lowest carbon impact; but we must also design for the worst-case scenario. Today, we have to be realistic and admit that we are close to the point of no return. We need to create buildings that can withstand the extremes that climate change will bring – rising sea levels, worse storms, increased floods, disruptions to transportation and supply chains, and more – but we also need to use design to help change the tide. Two primary approaches we use to approach the issue from both angles are biophilic design and low-carbon building systems. Biophilic design is more than just “putting the right plant in the right place”, it involves making buildings part of nature by incorporating natural forms, paying attention to variations in daylight, airflow and temperature, and opening up buildings to their natural surroundings. Using low-carbon design when planning and installing building systems – electricity, HVAC, plumbing, and more – can radically reduce the carbon footprint over its lifetime. The less carbon in our atmosphere, the better. We also employ passive green design elements like low-e glass and natural ventilation help reduce solar heat transfer and naturally cool buildings, while sponge city design concepts incorporate water-saving and runoff-reducing ideas at the earliest stages.
According to the United Nations, by 2050 almost 70% of the world’s population will live in cities or metropolises. What will new ways of living – respectful of the environment – look like?
M.C.: Architects have never been questioned about the future of how we live as much as they were during the pandemic: “Architect, what will the house of the future be like? The office of the future? The school of the future? The city of the future?” It was nice that people were, perhaps, listening to us more than ever, but none of us has a crystal ball and we can’t see the future. What is certain is that it will no longer be possible to design projects for their own sake, or projects that are exclusively about aesthetics or technology. There have been too many projects like this that have simply ignored context, geography, and demography. The way we live tomorrow must increasingly be the result of genuine analysis.
B.v.B.: This is truly a pressing issue and one that is being discussed widely right now. I think that we will see a mini-revolution in how we design our cities, because there are multiple problems that need to be solved, alongside the climate crisis. Indeed, densification is one of those. It is now imperative that we develop and implement well-designed city models, rather than just mindlessly densifying our already overcrowded cities. And we need to develop systems that operate in unison to benefit both people and the planet, because if designed carefully and correctly, high–density developments can be extremely pleasant, healthy and sustainable places to live and work. I imagine polycentric city models will become commonplace. There will be a great deal more greening in new developments. We may densify more vertically, but this will be done with close attention paid to ESG standards and quality of life. Urban farming will become more widespread, as will mixed-use development and the use of technology-driven service layers. In addition, new models for mobility, home ownership and rental will be rolled out, the sharing economy will grow and how we approach healthcare will also change as people truly start to live longer and aging populations also increase.
B.L.: Urbanisation is happening all over the world – in developing countries and developed nations and cities like San Francisco and London. Dense urban spaces can bring rapid increases in quality of life to large numbers of people – critical infrastructure elements like transportation, central heating and cooling, and internet accessibility can all be upgraded quickly and at a reasonable cost when compared to rural or less urbanised areas. East Asia, especially cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai, has some excellent examples of successful high-density design. Over the past 20 years, RLP has become a leader in high-rise, high-density urban architecture. Something we now specialise in is transit-oriented development, or TOD. These projects are multi-layered urban developments that mix and harmonise residential, commercial, transport, and environmental opportunities. Their primary objective is to promote sustainable urban growth by optimising land use and maximising access to public transport. TOD designs typically include a central transportation hub like a train station, light rail terminus or bus terminal that is surrounded by a high-density mixed-use development, with lower-density developed areas spreading out from this central point. When planned well, TODs reduce carbon consumption and eliminate vehicle use while also creating convenience for residents through greater accessibility and more walkability – which encourages a greener lifestyle and enhances the overall health and wellbeing of a community. RLP is currently leading a series of TOD developments across China, including seven cities in the southern Greater Bay Area. These include: the Pinghu Comprehensive Development in Shenzhen, an urban renewal project that aims to create an improved lifestyle and commercial area while connecting and integrating transport systems using eco-friendly designs; TODTOWN in Shanghai, a “mega railway transit hub” with residential apartments, offices, hotel, a shopping mall, multi-use sports facilities, and an arts centre; Chiwan in Shenzhen, a project aiming to provide seamless urban transport networks and restore nearby slopes, creating an ecologically-friendly and dynamic development that respects the relationship with its surroundings and allows residents to live within the natural environment.
15-Minute City, Passivhaus, Nearly Zero Energy Building: environmental, economic and social sustainability is more and more at the center of attention. In this sense, what role has the pandemic had?
M.C.: The pandemic possibly sharpened focus on the critical issues we were already aware of. But it probably also accelerated the remedies that we were already working on. Fortunately, work on developing NZEB projects was happening before the pandemic. The 15-minute city isn’t a new idea, either. Perhaps, though, the urgency of properly tackling certain problems is now more clearly recognized.
B.v.B.: Principally the pandemic highlighted shortcomings in our cities and lifestyles that were so commonplace, people had simply come to accept them as ‘the norm’. This ranges from loneliness, isolation and the need for community-building, to truly appreciating the outdoors and nature, and thus the need for more green space. The pandemic also highlighted issues related to housing shortages for essential workers and to health in general: that our homes and workplaces need to promote health on multiple levels (physical, psychological and social), as well as maintaining the health of the planet on the whole, beyond the human.
B.L.: The Covid-19 pandemic has proved to be a catalyst on a global scale. Not only has it shown us how vital it is to meet the basic physical and emotional needs of human beings, it has also accelerated technological advancements by shifting social protocols. Just look at virtual meetings: in the past, face-to-face meetings were the norm, now everyone conducts Zoom meetings as a matter of course. And it happened so fast. Architecture always changes and evolves with society, and this shift is no different. This huge lifestyle shift from in-person to virtual to hybrid work has left businesses and office workers scrambling to make choices about how to move forward. Architects and designers are working hard to adapt to these new normals. In addition to creating future-focused designs for our clients, RLP strives to lead by example: our new Shanghai office was designed to be a low-carbon, low-environmental impact, “health-first” workplace. Its human-centric features aim to create holistic benefits for all staff: visual and acoustic metrics are set to ideal levels at each workstation, ergonomic desks are optimised for both standing and seated positions, air quality and temperature are constantly monitored to ensure employee comfort, and a central common area offers healthy snacks, books and opportunities for social interaction. We want this office to be a resource for our staff, our neighbours and our clients.
How will we live together? was the theme of the 17th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice. Can you describe a project that is particularly significant to illustrate the future of our cities?
M.C.: The wheel turns, and nothing is ever new. I think back to when, many years ago, we designed the low cost, zero-emission 100K house. It was a project that restored that sense of pleasure of home, and helped pay for itself with autonomous energy from photovoltaic systems, surfaces that captured solar energy in winter, internal air circulation in summer, and all the passive strategies that can be used to make a building a bioclimatic machine. And costs were kept low by using industrial prefabrication. It seems to me that these are very much the issues we’re focused on today.
B.v.B.: We have recently designed a 10-minute city district in Seoul that encapsulates all of the above points, as well as a health-themed district in Milan. The designs for both of these masterplans tackle many of today’s issues, while also proposing new approaches to living in the future.
B.L.: RLP aims to make future cities as sustainable and human-centric as possible. I can think of two significant projects: Treehouse in Hong Kong and the CTF Wuhan Finance Centre in mainland China. Treehouse is our design for a net-zero, wellness-focused office building located in a mixed-use, high-density district of Hong Kong, and was the winner of the Hong Kong Green Building Council’s Advancing Net-Zero Award. Designed for the needs of the climate change generation, Treehouse seeks to rekindle the sacred relationship between humanity and nature. Biophilic elements are woven, visually and spatially, throughout this vertical green skyscraper. These include an urban native woodland and an artificial wetland at grade, sky gardens, external and interior green walls and roofing, and nature-themed materials and furnishings. Treehouse is planned for a hybrid of remote and in-person work distributed across homes, workplaces and satellite co-working spaces. It also promotes carbon positivity through cutting-edge technology, design and management. Self-shading inclined façades completely cut off direct solar heat gain to the upper stories, while horizontal light reflectors effectively enhance daylight harvesting. A rooftop PV system generates renewable energy and doubles as a shade for the roof. Passive cooling is achieved by wind being captured 200 metres above ground, which then flows through a heat exchange chamber under the artificial wetland to pre-cool the incoming air. Passive cooling is achieved by capturing wind 200m above ground and channelling it through a heat exchange chamber under the artificial wetland to pre-cool incoming air. A full-height solar chimney also creates a stack effect and reduces heat transferred into the building. Meanwhile, our vision for the CTF Wuhan Finance Centre is to create a special “collective place” for the community that allows people to move freely through a three-dimensional pedestrian network that connects the street level with below- and above-grade levels. The development will also act as a transportation hub for rail, tram, bus and boat traffic. The iconic tower is designed specifically to define its surroundings, rather than display its own individual power. Yes, it will be a nexus for all new development in the city; but it is also a symbol for growth and a bright future for the city. Essentially, the development will create a community environment which will unite people and functions as a “work, play and live” destination.
Please refer to the individual images in the gallery to look through the photo credits
Treehouse - Ronald Lu & Partners
Rendering by Ronald Lu & Partners, courtesy of Ronald Lu & Partners