They’re Alive! Skyscrapers that Breathe, Evolve, and (Maybe Even) Move

How Tall Can Skyscrapers Go? The More Pertinent Question Is: How Can Skyscrapers Better Serve Us?

June 20, 2019

Contributing Editor, Architectural Record

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally authored for the December 2018 issue of A+U. It is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher.

Back in the 1960s, Ron Herron and his compadres in the Archigram group envisioned a Walking City standing on telescopic steel legs that would allow it to ramble off to a new place if its residents got tired of its initial location. While no one has tried to build such a nomadic metropolis, many of the ideas behind this exercise in paper architecture are very much alive and kicking. The notion that buildings should respond to the needs of their users and change over time to adapt to new conditions is driving much thinking on high-rise design today. In addition, Archigram’s faith in technology’s ability to make a better future — while perhaps a bit naïve – still resonates with many of us. But instead of creating machines for living, 21st-century architects are aiming to design living machines that breathe, generate energy and listen to their users. “Alexa, prepare the skyscraper for the incoming storm.”

The 825-foot-tall Tencent headquarters in Shenzhen, China, by NBBJ doesn’t stand on legs, but it has arms that reach out and embrace its two towers. The arms don’t move, but they facilitate movement by the workers inside, providing horizontal connections between the towers and serving as activity hubs for exercise, dining and congregating. NBBJ rotated the towers and offset their heights so one shades the other and together they capture the site’s prevailing breezes to ventilate indoor atria. A modular shading system on the curtain wall varies according to the degree of sun exposure, thereby reducing glare and heat gain. The building’s skin seems alive. And its various rooftops support gardens that offer changing outdoor experiences to people working on upper floors.

The obvious question to ask about the future of skyscrapers is: How tall can they go? The answer is: Much taller than they need to. At 2,723 feet and 160 stories, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai is a notoriously inefficient building with more than 800 feet at the apex unoccupiable and a large percent of its top habitable floors consumed by elevators and core. When the 3,307-foot Jeddah Tower opens in 2020 in Saudi Arabia, it will have more than 1,000 feet of “vanity height.” Structural engineers’ skill at building high now far exceeds the market’s demand or users’ desire for such things.

The more pertinent question to ask is: How can skyscrapers better serve us? Building tall reduces the physical and carbon footprint of our cities, so it makes a lot of sense. Dramatic skylines give our cities their particular identities and manifest values of innovation and progress. As Daniel Burnham famously said, little plans “have no magic to stir men’s blood.” But in addition to inspiring us, tall buildings today must create healthy and beautiful places to live, work, learn and play. Instead of sucking energy and generating waste, these structures must generate their own power, capture and reuse water and make the planet a cleaner place. Most of the technologies needed to do this are currently available; now we just need to make them more economical. Because of the economies of scale inherent in their size, skyscrapers are the logical place to start deploying these green strategies.

While the particular technologies used will change over time, the direction of high-rise architecture points to various forms of biomimicry — design that’s modeled on biological processes. One way to do this is to undermine the hermetically sealed environment inside buildings, by either adding outdoor spaces such as sky-gardens that are accessible to people on upper floors or creating landscaped atria at various heights throughout a tower. Malaysian architect Ken Yeang has been greening his skyscrapers in these ways for decades, adding nature to architecture and in the process reducing energy loads and creating healthier indoor environments. The next step is to make building envelopes that actually breathe — allowing fresh air in and pushing heat and carbon dioxide out. While studying at the University of Stuttgart, Tobias Becker developed a breathing glass skin that controls the flow of light, air and temperature by changing the size of apertures or “pores.” These openings dilate or contract pneumatically like muscles and require little energy to operate.

In recent years, Arup has been developing building skins impregnated with micro-algae that insulate indoor spaces while absorbing carbon dioxide and generating oxygen. The algae can also be harvested and used as a bio-fuel. The engineering firm tested the technology in a five-story building in Hamburg a few years ago and now XTU, a French studio, is proposing to use its own micro-algae system in a high-rise project in Hangzhou, China.

Meanwhile, David Benjamin and his firm The Living have been building structures using bricks made from a fungus called mycelium. Materials that are grown instead of manufactured have lots of advantages, such as requiring less energy to produce and being biodegradable. Benjamin’s most prominent project was his Hi-Fy Tower installed in the courtyards at MoMA PS1 in Queens, New York, in the summer of 2014. At Cambridge University in the U.K., bioengineer Michelle Oyen is trying to develop building materials made of artificial bone or eggshell, which are stronger and lighter on a per-weight basis than steel. And because they are produced at room or body temperature, rather than more than 1,000 degrees for cement, they require less energy to manufacture. A lot more research needs to be done before a skyscraper’s structural members truly resemble an animal’s skeleton, but we can now imagine a day when columns and beams can be grown and can perhaps even repair themselves.

Haresh Lalvani, the cofounder of the Pratt Center for Experimental Structures, wants to go one step further — developing building systems that are encoded with information on how to shape themselves, similar to the way stem cells and genes are in living organisms. Working with metal fabricator Milgo/Bufkin, Lalvani has created perforated metal sheets that can be stretched out — using gravity or some kind of applied force — to become three-dimensional structures. The process is similar to cutting a piece of paper into a spiral and then pulling it into a telescoping coil. It gives “pop-up” architecture a whole new meaning.

While the gee-whiz factor of such experimental strategies can be either exciting or a bit silly, the main goal of skyscraper innovation should be creating buildings that are more environmentally friendly, more responsive to the needs of their users and healthier for the people inside and around them. Sensors will monitor and automatically adjust temperature, humidity, lighting, air quality and all kinds of interior conditions. Ideally, we’ll be able to tune these buildings to improve performance and erect them so they can clean and repair themselves. I doubt we’ll ever have skyscrapers that walk, but I can imagine a day when they grow and contribute to an urban ecosystem that’s sustainable, resilient and enticing.

Banner image courtesy Vladimir Kudinov/Unsplash.

Tencent sketch courtesy Jonathan Ward/NBBJ; photograph courtesy Terrence Zhang/NBBJ.

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The Distance Between a Neuron and a Building

It Seems Inevitable, Given Enough Rigorous Research, that Cognitive Neuroscience Might One Day Claim a Valuable Seat at the Design Table

May 14, 2019

Affiliate Professor of Bioengineering, University of Washington School of Medicine

@brainrulesbooks

http://www.johnmedina.com/

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally authored for the December 2018 issue of A+U. It is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher.

I’ve been on a road-trip with NBBJ for several years now — a cartographic adventure mapping the terrain between cognitive neuroscience and architecture. I was initially skeptical about jumping into this car, mostly because of a lack of landmarks in my field, the developmental brain sciences. Despite extraordinary progress, we have a surprisingly long way to go before we even understand basic brain functions. We don’t know how people pick up pencils, for example, let alone how people create Pritzker Prize-worthy designs.

The reason I decided to join this exploration came from a ridiculously obvious point. Whatever else design is, it’s a function of somebody’s thought life, and therefore somebody’s brain life. It seems inevitable, given enough rigorous research, that cognitive neuroscience might one day claim a valuable seat at the design table. This hope ultimately challenged my skepticism — and, after NBBJ reached out and piqued my interest, provided the basis for some enjoyable conversations on the road with NBBJ.

 

Evolutionary Facts

The optimism initially sprang from two well-established “brain facts.” First, the brain is exquisitely sensitive to its outer environment. Just learning something — anything — will physically rewire it. And that has consequences. Even brief exposures to external stimuli can influence complex behavioral changes, some with surprising durability.

The second is our evolutionary history. More than 99% of our earthly experience has been spent in settings composed of natural elements — sojourning as hunter-gatherers in water-poor grasslands. Given the brain’s environmental sensitivity, it’s reasonable to assume the Serengeti would have had measurable impacts on its development. There is increasing empirical support for this assertion, guided by E.O. Wilson’s famous Biophilia hypothesis. Here’s how Stephen Kellert et al. couch it: “Human beings are biologically predisposed to require contact with natural forms … people are not capable of living a complete and healthy life detached from nature.”[1]

 

Psychological Facts

Many signs point to the impact this evolutionary history makes on hominid reactions to built space. Consider our uneasy relationship with buildings. Brains tend to prefer what the late Jay Appleton calls Prospect-Refuge spaces. Jay says: “People prefer environments where they can easily survey their surroundings and quickly hide or retreat to safety if necessary.”[2]

This preference comes right out of eastern Africa, a terrain combining flat open spaces like the Serengeti with mountainous structures like the Ngorongoro Crater. We needed prospect to look for predators, but we needed refuge in case we found one. This tension between the necessity for broad openness and tight enclosure has not changed simply because we acquired a bit of civilization.

Another example of this impact involves the brain’s reactions to color. We know that blue light arouses the organ. Since the only time in our evolutionary history where we saw large expanses of blue was in daylight, when being alert was critical, a cerulean-arousal linkage makes a lot of sense. I developed 18 lectures for NBBJ, a basic neuroscience-for-architects course, filled with data like these, that I delivered via livestream to the entire firm.

 

Neurobiological Facts

These lectures weren’t just about evolutionary psychology. We journeyed directly into the brain’s physical interior, exploring structure/function relationships, addressing questions like: How do brains physically respond to the body’s presence in three-dimensional spaces? How do spatial preferences and color preferences and navigational preferences manifest themselves neurologically? How does the brain even know where its owner’s body is standing?

We’re beginning to get answers to these questions. And so I lectured about grid cells — talented suites of neural tissues that provide a context-independent grid system. These tissues create a navigational framework, working in our brains like latitude/longitude work in our maps. We also discussed place cells, the brain’s own GPS mapping system, providing location information on that previously mentioned grid. We finally discussed head direction cells, neurons functioning like interior compasses, informing both the grid and the GPS — and you — in what direction your head is headed. These systems chat amongst themselves like teenagers, telling the brain how to react to three-dimensional space while moving through it, the left-ventricle of any architectural design. During the lecture series, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to May-Britt and Edvard Moser. They got it in part for figuring this system out.

As a result, I’ve had to give my skepticism a bit of a scolding. Indeed, I concluded these 18 lectures saying every architect ought to know something about these data, from Darwin to neuron, even if the only current value is understanding they exist. After all, if the science is now mature enough to win a Nobel Prize, it’s now mature enough to start a dialogue — which is shaping new approaches to behavioral health, biophilia, applied research and more. These are the beginnings of a collaboration whose creamy-center is peer-reviewed science.

That, in a nutshell, is about what my journey with NBBJ has consisted. I’m still skeptical about making prescriptions, but I’m no longer skeptical about making conversations. Given time, evidence-based reasons for design (informed by solid cognitive neuroscientific understanding) will be part of architecture’s future. Maybe most of it.

All told, this has been a fun, productive road-trip. I’m glad I got in the car.

 

Notes

1. Kellert, S., J. Heerwagen, and M. Mador. Biophilic Design. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2008.

2. Appleton, J. The Experience of Landscape. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 1975.

 

Banner image courtesy nike159/Pixabay.

 

Photo by AJ Robbie on Unsplash

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How Can We Make Our Cities More Vibrant?

NBBJ and Downtown Works Host a Seattle Salon on Urban Vitality

April 24, 2019

Senior Associate / Commercial Market Director, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: NBBJ and Downtown Works recently hosted an event with Canadian developer Robert Fung, president of the Salient Group, who spearheaded the revival of Vancouver’s Gastown neighborhood and the renaissance of New Westminster. Here are a few of the key takeaways on how to create more engaging, livable cities through development and design.

Create a Core If There Isn’t One. A city that treats all of its streets in the same manner can be soulless and centerless. Creating neighborhood hubs and carefully curating a thoughtful mix of retail stores and restaurants, as well as other uses at the street front to complement residential and office uses, is critical to creating a vibrant urban neighborhood.

Focus on the Ground Floor. While residential and office spaces typically drive the financial pro forma of mixed-use developments, it is the ground floor that defines a building’s identity. The places where buildings interact with the street have the power to shape our cities in dramatic ways. Bringing in ground floor tenants that attract diverse groups — residents, office workers, families and tourists alike — is valuable to driving a thriving city. Taking a holistic approach and allowing for highly permeable storefronts that enable the building to engage the sidewalk in a variety of ways improves street life and builds a unique neighborhood character.

Tenant Selection is Key to Success. While an appropriate balance of mixed-use offerings is key, providing retail that is the right scale for an urban neighborhood can dramatically affect its character. This process begins well in advance of leasing, involves engaging the neighborhood’s residents and developing an understanding of the community’s strengths and aspirations. For example, New Westminster, British Columbia’s original capital city, was once a major retail hub in the mid-twentieth century. Many of the stores shuttered, but a retail cluster focused on bridal dress shops organically evolved when other uses declined. Embracing and building on this unique cluster with complementary retail and restaurant tenants was an important part of the strategy to revitalize its downtown core.

Preserve and Build on the Historic Urban Character. Identifying and championing our neighborhoods’ and buildings’ historic elements creates great value, both functionally and aesthetically. Yet it’s more than just historic rehabilitation, preservation and façade retention. It’s also about capturing the unique spirit and history of each community that is embodied in the neighborhood’s historic fabric. Creating engaging pedestrians’ experiences that recreate and capitalize on the texture of heritage can be beneficial in establishing a feeling of comfort and familiarity with a place.

People Need Spaces to Socialize. The most attractive urban neighborhoods offer engaging social spaces that reflect the strengths and diversity of their residents and visitors. This ties back to the street front. With much of the focus on the upper floors of the building, street level components are often an afterthought in mixed-use projects. Placing an equal focus on the first floor and those above is critical to creating spaces and experiences that draw people to a building, help them feel comfortable and provide compelling social hubs that define great neighborhoods.

Our urban places are constantly changing, and to be successful, our cities must champion and celebrate diverse activities, uses and experiences.

If developments are carried through with the right intent and strategic collaboration, our cities will be energetic, lively and diverse — places that our future generations will be proud to call home.

Banner image courtesy of Daria Shevtsova/Pexels.

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