Thriving, Not Just Surviving: Solving the Climate Crisis

A Visit to the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit

October 4, 2019

Director of Design Performance, NBBJ

I had the privilege of joining the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit in New York City earlier this fall. Amongst the many tracks at the event, my focus was on Infrastructure, Cities, and Local Action — how to bring climate solutions to bear in cities that are on the front lines of emissions, impact and action. As the creators of cities and the urban context, our profession plays an integral part of any climate crisis solution and must be actively involved in driving the world forward.

My key take-away from the summit is the broader societal success that will result when our cities transform into zero-carbon economies. Zero-carbon cities will be healthier, cleaner, more connected, more resilient, and the drivers of innovation and green economic success. They will be the places where you want your children and grandchildren to live. It’s hard to argue against that.

It is of utmost importance for the design industry to elevate the discussion around these greater societal benefits, especially in these times of disagreement over the urgency of the climate crisis. Focusing on the non-climatic benefits can drive greater change while we reap the environmental benefits. There are stories and threads for every audience — be it economic growth, resilience and security, human health, ecosystem restoration or social justice.

What can we do, as city designers, in a context where, as Ms. Maimunah Mohd Sharif, executive director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, said at the summit, 75% of the 2050 infrastructure has yet to be built? Here are a few ideas:

  • Bring long-term thinking to our projects. All our current buildings will be around in 2050 — are they able to make the transition and meet the 2050 goals for zero carbon?
  • Utilize full-cost, life-cycle accounting in our decision-making, bringing in the cost of carbon and societal impacts and evaluating them from construction to decommissioning.
  • Focus on the human experience — zero carbon means little if our projects aren’t wonderful places for people.
  • Focus discussions around non-carbon benefits to build stakeholder support.
  • Don’t look for a “new tech silver bullet” — the solutions we need, from heat pumps to solar and wind energy, are here, now.
  • Lead from within.*

While getting to zero carbon by 2050 is a daunting task, it is achievable. We see tremendous growth in action and commitment across the public and private sector — whether it’s Amazon’s recent Climate Pledge, New York City’s buildings’ carbon emissions law or the consortium success of the C40 Cities Initiative.

I’m bullish about our capabilities and the passion and talent across the AEC industry and beyond. Together, we can drive this exponential curve to zero carbon and enjoy a beautiful and healthy future in our cities — cities that will house 5 billion of us by 2050.

“Getting there [to zero carbon cities] will be the growth story of the 21st century.”
—Lord Nicholas Stern, London School of Economics

 

* Here are a few of the things NBBJ is doing:

  • More than a decade of commitment to the Architecture 2030 Challenge
  • Leaders who are active in their communities, from driving local code changes to serving on national and international boards and committees, including the Living Futures Institute, the AIA’s Energy Leadership Group and ASHRAE
  • Founding sponsorship of and membership in Targeting 100! with the University of Washington
  • Our Legacy Project in partnership with the Nature Conservancy

 

Banner image courtesy of Pixabay.

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The Retail Balancing Act

How to Preserve the Local and the Global

September 30, 2019

Urban Design Director, NBBJ

Visitors to the London 2012 Olympic Games, and today to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, often wonder why the main route to a park — a major civic space — is through a shopping centre. A reasonable question. The simplest, and somewhat unsatisfying answer is that Stratford was one of the poorest parts of not just London but the entire UK when the Westfield Group expressed an interest in investing there, and the local authority jumped at the offer. The London 2012 Games were hardly a twinkle in anyone’s eye and a Westfield shopping centre would, of course, ‘regenerate’ the area, with 280 shops and 70 restaurants providing some 8,000 new jobs.

Today, businesses that existed prior to Westfield Stratford City cannot afford the leases the new shopping centre demands. As a result, many of the surrounding streets are plagued by vacant and boarded up shopfronts. This, in turn, produces streets that become inhospitable environments.

Westfield Stratford City
(Richard Croft/Geograph)

This story is not an unusual one. It is well known now that shopping malls can sap the energy from local businesses, especially if they are selling similar products to the multi-nationals. Yet in an era when the viability of the main street is in question, thanks to on-line shopping, it is worthwhile to seek sustainable retail and town center models that provide a healthy balance of independent local retail and informal activities, alongside the multi-nationals.

The Stratford Shopping Centre, situated immediately east of Westfield Stratford City, presents an interesting, albeit not perfect, dynamic in conjunction with its newer neighbour. Built in 1974 on the site of an outdoor market, a condition of its construction was that it retain the existing market stalls. While not an architectural gem, it is a counterpoint to Westfield that fulfils an obvious need and is an important local community venue and amenity. It provides fresh fruit and vegetables at prices lower than the big grocery stores, along with products such as kielbasa and plantains that reflect the demographic makeup of the area. As well, in sharp contrast to Westfield, after hours the mall often gives the space over to skateboarders who enjoy the spacious smooth surface and reverberations from their portable music systems.

Another interesting precedent offering a mix of the local and the global is the Marylebone High Street in London, where a welcoming public realm is flanked by active frontages comprising diverse retailers. The properties on this street are under the purview of the Howard de Walden Estate. The ‘Estate’ manages a cross-subsidization that promotes a balance between the chains and the one-offs.

Marylebone High Street
(Malc McDonald/Geograph)

The Marylebone High Street provides an example of clear recognition on the part of a landlord to ensure a mix of the local and global. In the case of Westfield, a more-or-less happy co-existence between their global offering and local retail has evolved — albeit not by design. Two big boxes sit on either side of a busy road with their so-called ‘public realm’ almost entirely internalized and certainly under private management.

As this dichotomy between local and multi-national retail persists we should explore ways to, from the onset of regeneration and revitalization projects, proactively integrate these diverse merchandising worlds. At a time when everyone is pleading for places that support the ‘authentic’ and the local surely we ought to be more demanding and innovative in leasing strategies. It is ultimately paramount that in any given neighborhood all populations are served. This requires recognition that is both spatial — providing the space for the local to flourish — and economic — ensuring both the rent levels and offer are affordable to businesses and local constituents respectively.

Small local businesses are often owned by people with a long standing history in a neighbourhood. As preservation does not refer just to the building fabric but also to the retention of local social and economic qualities, we need to think innovatively about how these community assets — often representing ethnic and socio-economic diversity — might be retained.  Contributions by developers to a small business fund or the re-provision of small tenant space are a few potential mechanisms. Cross-subsidization from the multi-national to the local, while a great tool, may only be possible under specific property ownership scenarios.

New small independent retail should also be encouraged. It is often the complex and time/resources-consuming permitting process that is an insurmountable hurdle for the owner of an independent shop. To this end a streamlining of the process would be welcome, allowing less established shops and pop-ups to ‘test drive’ a retail concept.

There is, of course, a formal aspect to this issue which begs the question of the shopping centre or mall as a typology. Were Westfield’s area of 177,000m2 distributed along the length of streets, and the £1.45bn — Westfield’s price tag — invested in public realm improvements, the number of local jobs would have been the same but we would enjoy active street fronts for the length of a mile framing a healthy and truly public realm.

Economic stratification is not a new phenomenon. In most major cities there are instances where a very different population is being served from one urban block to the next: from Madison Avenue to Lexington Avenue in New York, from Bond Street to Oxford Street in London. Having said that, at the neighbourhood scale, where we strive to create places to live and work that are welcoming and affordable to all, the retail offer should similarly provide an integration of local and global shops and a rich experience for all.

Banner image courtesy domeckopol/Pexels.

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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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